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"Contexts of Opportunity: Explaining Cross-National Variation in the Links Between Childhood Disadvantage, Young Adult Demographic Behaviour and Later-Life Outcomes"

Final Report Summary - CONOPP (Contexts of Opportunity: Explaining Cross-National Variation in the Links Between Childhood Disadvantage, Young Adult Demographic Behaviour and Later-Life Outcomes)

It is well-known that childhood disadvantage (e.g. low parental socio-economic status, experiencing family instability) has negative consequences for the adult life course of children involved. We know little, though, about whether the impact of childhood disadvantage for adult life-course outcomes differs across societal contexts. This project examined this latter issue and tested the general hypothesis that the extent to which adverse childhood conditions lead to negative demographic outcomes in young adulthood and to poor socio-economic and health-related outcomes in later life depends on the country context. In countries that offer good opportunities for human development and individual autonomy, effects of parental background are weaker than in countries that do not offer these kinds of conditions.
To test this guiding hypothesis of the project, we used information from European research infrastructures that have data on what goes on in peoples’ lives across a large number of European countries. Data was mainly used from the Generations and Gender Programme (GGP), with additional data from the Survey of Health and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) and the European Social Survey (ESS).
Based on the project, a number of key conclusions can be drawn. First, childhood background has a pervasive impact on a broad range of demographic, socio-economic and health outcomes, both in young, middle and older adulthood. For instance, we established that children with a disadvantaged background run a higher risk of early partnering and parenthood, a higher risk of divorce and separation, a higher chance of cohabitation, generally have lower personal income during their fifties, and run a higher risk of loneliness and poor health as older adults.
Second, we know that children whose parents are higher educated and who come from a stable family achieve a higher level of education than children whose parents are low educate and experienced family instability. However, this project shows that usually a substantial association between parental background and adult outcomes remains after adults’ own educational attainment has been taken into account. This implies that family background influences adult outcomes by multiple pathways. Some of our studies shed light on these pathways. We have shown, for instance, that both cultural and economic capital of parents matter, that childhood effects partly result from differences in values, attitudes and intentions between children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds, and that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less able to transform their intentions and intentions into action and into advantageous outcomes.
Third, we found strong confirmation that societal context matters. We observed considerable variation in the strength of the relationship between childhood conditions and adult outcomes across societal contexts. In some countries, these relationships were much stronger than in other. In many instances, clear indications were present that family background mattered less in societies that offer good opportunities for (young) adults to develop themselves than in countries that do not offer such good conditions. For instance, in societies that offer good opportunities to people to develop themselves, young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds run a lower risk to enter a partnership and parenthood at a very early age or to experience parenthood out of a partnership, than in societies that do not offer good opportunities for human development. Still, in some instances we did find variation in the effect of childhood disadvantage on adult outcomes, but could not explain why this is the case. Overall, though, quite strong evidence in line with our central hypothesis has been amassed.
In summary, this project showed that childhood disadvantage generally matters a lot for adult-life family and health outcomes, but that childhood disadvantage matters less in societal contexts that offer better prospects for human development.