Young people are finding it increasingly difficult to achieve independence from their parents and make a speedy transition to adulthood. They may want to establish their independence by moving out of the parental home and starting their own families, but financial constraints are often a major barrier. As a result, some young people postpone these significant steps, or may even decide to have children early on, even if they are not fully financially independent. Their options are significantly influenced by their own family background, which can reinforce social inequalities and intergenerational mobility amongst different groups of young people (Sirniö et al. 2016).
How does family formation differ by social background?
Considering the relevance of both its short- and long-term consequences, we focus on social gradient in the timing of family formation according to parental background. We explore whether parental background can shield some young people’s family formation plans from the adverse effects of labour market disadvantage. Specifically, we asked the following questions.
Do young people from families with varying socio-economic background follow different family formation strategies?
Our expectation is that young people from lower socio-economic families have both their first marriage and their first child earlier than young people from higher socio-economic families.
What role does parental background play in mitigating the effect of unemployment in family formation strategies?
Expectedly, young people from higher socio-economic backgrounds, but with lower labour market attachment, still form their own families later than young people from lower socio-economic families in similar circumstances.
A comparison of four countries
To answer these questions, we used multivariate statistical methods on the first two waves of the longitudinal database of the Generations and Gender Programme (GGP) for four countries: Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and France. The selection of countries was constrained by the availability of harmonised information on demographic history, by the coverage of European countries and by the availability of measures of parental background. These constraints led to a small sample of countries in our analysis, which limits its generalisability.
Family background shields when employment fails
We found that the role of parental background is very important in terms of family formation, especially for less advantaged young people. The importance of the parental background during adverse employment circumstances is especially crucial for childbearing: having more parental resources avoids unfavourable outcomes, such as having a child when financial independence is lacking.
Family background can influence the timing of marriage, too. Young men and women from low socio-economic status families tend to get married earlier. This finding suggests that union formation may be particularly attractive for these groups, who may value gains from marriage in terms of economies of scale and pooled incomes to a greater extent than well-off young people.
We also found no strong gender differentials in the way in which labour market status affects family formation strategies, suggesting that young women in Europe are using the labour market to gain financial independence just as much as young men.
Parental background is a resource young people may fall on in the event of difficulties establishing independence with other means. This is especially so for childbearing: when young people are scarred by unemployment, they are more likely to delay family formation if they come from a high socio-economic status family.
In general, having more parental resources is associated with a lower risk of having a child when still financially dependent. But also, marriage is affected by family background. Young men and women from low socio-economic status families tend to get married earlier, suggesting that this may be a possible strategy towards gaining independence.
Families can amplify social inequalities
We found some evidence that those with low parental resources follow family formation strategies that are unfavourable for young people in terms of career and education investment and also for their offspring.
The role of parental resources is heightened when young people experience difficulties in the labour market. Since those from low socio-economic status families are also more likely to experience disadvantage in the labour market, the social disparities coming from family formation strategies are amplified.
From a policy perspective, designing benefit systems and employment programmes that take into account the situation of the parental home of young workers would reduce the disparity in access to resources among young people.
Because unemployment at the beginning of the working career has a scarring effect not just regarding labour market engagement but family formation as well, policies could be targeted at offering career guidance to young people from families with low resources, with a view to increasing their engagement with the labour market.
Sirniö, Outi, Pekka Martikainen and Timo Kauppinen. 2016. ‘Entering the Highest and the Lowest Incomes: Intergenerational Determinants and Early-Adulthood Transitions’. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 44: 77-90.