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Nonmarital childbearing in comparative perspective: trends, explanations, and lifecourse trajectories

Final Report Summary - CHILDCOHAB (Nonmarital childbearing in comparative perspective: trends, explanations, and lifecourse trajectories)

Over the past several decades, partnership patterns have changed dramatically throughout most of Europe, Australia, and the U.S. Marriage rates have declined, cohabitation has become widespread, and the percent of births in cohabitation has increased dramatically. This research has provided insights into the trends, explanations, and outcomes associated with cohabitation and childbearing in cohabitation. We have employed advanced quantitative methods and demographic techniques, focus group research, and policy analysis to gain a better understand new forms of family behaviour and the global process of family change more generally.

The project has led to a better understanding of which changes in family behavior are universal and which are country-specific. Some aspects appear to be common across countries and imply that cohabitors are different from married people. For example, across Europe, individuals who have first births within cohabitation have lower second birth rates than those married at first birth, suggesting that cohabitation is not generally perceived as a suitable environment for further childbearing and rearing. The educational gradient of first birth in cohabitation is consistently negative across European countries, indicating that childbearing in cohabitation is associated with a pattern of disadvantage. The focus group research also found similarities in discourses across countries. Participants described marriage as a more committed type of union, while cohabitation is a way to test the relationship and represents freedom. Thus, cohabitation has not necessarily emerged as a replacement for marriage, but instead a relationship type more appropriate for uncertainty.

On the other hand, the social processes creating the increase in cohabitation appear to differ dramatically across countries, indicating that cultural, social, economic, and legal conditions are very important for influencing partnerships. Using quantitative data in 14 European countries and the U.S. we found that country context is a better predictor of partnership patterns than educational level. While education is important for predicting the postponement of marriage across countries, it is not as important as the country in which a person lives for predicting marriage, cohabitation, and divorce. Our policy analysis indicated that the laws governing cohabitation range across a spectrum, from policies that have equalized cohabitation and marriage to policies that only regulate marriage, reflecting different historical, political, and demographic developments. Some of the discourses in the focus groups were also country-specific, including discussions around topics such as religion, the lifecourse, social memory, and trust. Hence, we urge researchers to recognize historical pathways, policy regimes, and cultural nuances when interpreting increases in new family behaviors.