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Final Report Summary - COUPFER (Couples and childbearing: new approaches to the study of fertility outcomes and family formation across Europe.)

This project has examined family formation behavior of European couples. I, in collaboration with several collaborators, have focused on understanding how her and his educational attainment interact with each other in relating to childbearing behavior, how such couple dynamics may depend upon the surrounding social context, and which intra-couple dynamics, such as the division of housework, may be relevant for explaining differential childbearing behavior of couples. As envisioned, the work on this project helped me developing links with other researchers, which lead to successful collaborations. All of the project papers are collaborative work; the collaborators and their affiliations are as follows: Daniela Grunow, Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany; Marika Jalovaara, University of Turku, Finland; Katherine Masyn, Georgia State University, USA; Anna Matysiak, WIC/OEAW/VID, Austria; Jan Van Bavel, University of Leuven, Belgium; Daniele Vignoli, University of Florence, Italy.

Two project papers examine the first and third objective, namely relationship between partners’ educational pairings and their childbearing behavior across a wide array of European countries. Using panel data from the EU-SILC, we (Natalie Nitsche, Anna Matysiak, Jan Van Bavel and Daniele Vignoli) have examined whether there are differences in how her or his education relates to the entry into parenthood and to progression rates to second and third or higher order births conditional on the partners education. One paper focuses on couples with at least one highly educated partner, while the other paper investigates couples with one or two low educated partners. Results indicate that how her or his education relates to fertility behavior does indeed differ by the partner’s education among couples with at least one highly educated partner, but not so among couples with low educational attainment. Across Europe, homogamous highly educated couples have higher parity progressions to second and third births than hypogamous or hypergamous couples with one highly and one lower educated partner, as illustrated in figure 1. This pattern is especially pronounced in the Western European countries. No such a distinction of the relationship between the educational pairings and parity progression rates can be found among low educated couples. The work addressing the second objective is still in progress. Here, we are using Finnish register data and structural equation modeling (simultaneous equations) to understand the effect of partners’ socio-economic resources on relationship trajectories and childbearing behavior. In addition to the work described above, additional analyses and manuscripts that build on and extend the work performed for the first objective have been conducted and written.
In order to understand the mechanisms that may explain why highly educated homogamous couples may have higher parity progression rates, we (Natalie Nitsche and Jan Van Bavel) used different data (Panel Analysis for Intimate Relationships and Family Dynamics, pairfam, conducted in Germany) for testing whether couple-level-dynamics such as gender ideology, value consensus between the partners, the division of housework, or income dynamics etc. may drive this outcome. However, in these data from Germany, we could not replicate the baseline results. While homogamous highly educated couples displayed higher parity progression rates to second births among couples with at least one highly educated partner, differences between educational pairings were not significant, and testing for mechanisms hence not feasible. We are currently working on conducting the same analysis with HILDA data from Australia.
Furthermore, we (Natalie Nitsche and Daniela Grunow) have investigated the effect of gender ideology and socio-economic resources of both partners on the division of housework, as this may help to understand whether couples relative education or income is connected to differences in gendered behavior, which may in turn drive childbearing behavior. This study uses data from the Panel Analysis for Intimate Relationships and Family Dynamics and finds that an egalitarian gender ideology of both him and her significantly predicts more egalitarian division-trajectories, while neither absolute nor relative resources appear to have an effect on the division of housework over time. These findings have been published in ‘Advances in Life Course Research’ and point to gender ideology of both him and her to be relevant for gendered behavior in families, and underscores the importance of testing whether gender ideology may also be a driving force in the differential childbearing behavior of highly educated homogamous couples.
Another paper, currently in progress, will examine the role union formation and dissolution trajectories play for completed parity at age 40, and how these union trajectories mediate the effect of education on parity at age 40. In other words, the paper looks whether educational differences in achieved parity at age 40 remain once we are able to control for differing union histories. We (Natalie Nitsche, Marika Jalovaara, Katherine Masyn) will use Finnish register data and latent class analyses for longitudinal data for the analyses.
Finally, a review and conceptual piece on the current state of the art and future direction in family formation research has been written and is forthcoming (Anna Matysiak and Natalie Nitsche) for the new series “Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resources”. In this piece, we discuss the sociological and demographic literature on family formation by summarizing what is known, where research gaps are, and presenting ideas for how future research can expand our knowledge in this area. We describe some project findings, e.g. that the relationship between education and childbearing behavior varies significantly by the education of the partner, specifically among the highly educated. Additionally, some of the arguments we make in terms of what future research is needed are directly based on insights and reflections gained through the work on the project.

Socio-economic impacts were not intended and are not applicable. The project results are relevant for the broader society and have the potential to impact social policy makers, specifically those who target policies directed at gender equality and families. The findings indicate that gender values of both partners impact the gendered division of housework and point to a strong impact of social norms and values on gendered and family behavior. Targeting cultural factors such as social norms and value formation may hence be an effective measure to induce social change. Also, the findings showing that couples with two highly educated couples seem to stand out in terms of their parity progressions to second and third births warrants further investigation and has policy implications. The work on some of the project papers is ongoing, and future policy-relevant results are expected.

The published and to date unpublished manuscripts which are in progress can be found on the project website:

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Tomas Sobotka, (Research Group Leader)
Tel.: +43 15 15 81 7716


Life Sciences
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