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Discontinuities in Household and Family Formation

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - DisCont (Discontinuities in Household and Family Formation)

Reporting period: 2020-02-01 to 2021-07-31

Demographic change is one of the great challenges of our time, and household, family and fertility are among its key drivers. Discovering and explaining the direction and speed of change in household, family, and fertility is essential to understand the current situation and to provide scientific evidence on our demographic future and the information in support of policy decisions. Both at the EU level and at the global level, with the Sustainable Development Goals agenda, demography has been put at the center of the policy agenda. The DisCont ERC-ADG studies the impact of important and fast societal-level changes ("discontinuities"), and in particular the digital revolution and the Great Recession, on household, family and fertility in post-industrial contemporary societies and at the global level.

In post-industrial contemporary societies (e.g. OECD countries), population change is often believed to occur in a relatively smooth, orderly and inertial way. In the past, before the so-called "demographic transition", populations were periodically hit by sudden crises and subsequent recoveries. Reverend Thomas Malthus, a founding figure in the study of demography, contrasted the smooth population changes associated with limiting family formation (which he called “preventive checks”), with the discontinuities attributable to mortality (“positive checks”). Ester Boserup, a pioneering scholar on the interaction between demographic and socio-economic change, saw technological discontinuities induced by innovation as key drivers of population change over the long run. The demographic transition, with secular declines in mortality and fertility, is usually seen as bringing smoothness in population change, continuity rather than discontinuity. Research in demography has therefore become acquainted with this smoothness. For instance, demographic change has become among the few developments in our societies that we tend to feel confident in forecasting over the long term. Indeed, demographic forecasts (some of which include forecasts on individuals and households) are often taken as the building blocks on which other long-term forecasts are built, from urbanization and land use change to carbon emissions and climate change, from macroeconomic dynamics to education planning. "Grand" social theories on changes in family systems have tended to emphasize the gradual convergence to a single type of family pattern across the World, or the long-term persistence of regimes that are considered characteristic of different societies within a general diversification of family forms.

When taking a closer look at the Twentieth Century, there are important instances in which order and smoothness have been disrupted by discontinuities. In Europe, World War II acted as a pre-transitional period crisis, with a substantial increase in mortality accompanied by a postponement of family formation and fertility until after the end of the war. Economic recessions (and conversely economic booms) left their traces upon populations, from the Great Depression onwards. More recently, the unique trajectory of fertility decline in Central and Eastern Europe has mimicked a pre-transitional period crisis, and perhaps a distinctive effect for the generations who were coming of age during the transition. For what concerns technology, the availability of modern contraceptives starting in the 1960s is a crucial technological trigger.

Through a coordinated series of theoretically-grounded empirical studies, drawing on a comparative perspective, the overall objective of DisCont is to challenge conventional wisdom that population change, in a post-demographic-transition world, happens in a smooth, orderly, and inertial way. The main focus is on two post-Millennium discontinuities, the Great Recession and the digital revolution, and their effect on demographic change, and in particular on household, family, and fertility change. In addition to substantial contributions in the study of demographic change, DIsCont has also the objective to advance the methodological tools that are used to study demographic change, using new methods for the analysis of existing data and newly available data to address scientific issues.
The DisCont project, in its first half, has covered all areas that were originally planned, with some expansion towards related and promising avenues of research. In terms of scientific impact (see list of Output in the 'Publications' section),
publications span several disciplines, from the top journals in the areas of Demography, Economics, Sociology, Statistics and Psychology, as well as conference proceedings in Computer Science.

For what concerns the impact of the digital revolution on household, family and fertility, DisCont has been a seminal project in documenting the effects of introducing broadband internet, hopefully changing the scientific debate on the topic, and with important results in terms of dissemination for the general public. We mention two examples. The 2018 "Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization" article on sleep by Billari, Giuntella, and Stella gained extensive coverage, including Corriere della Sera, The Times, Daily Mail, Der Tagesspiegel, The Times of India, The Herald, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Deutschlandfunk, The New Zealand Herald, The New Indian Express, The South Indian Post, Business Standard, The Asian Age, Digital Trends, EurekAlert!, Vice Motherboard, Sleep Review, Business Recorder, DIW/SOEP Press Release, Saarbrücker Zeitung, Deutsches Ärzteblatt, The University Network, Leggo, La Sicilia, Sky TG24, TGcom24,

The 2019 "Population Studies" article on fertility by Billari, Giuntella, and Stella gained extensive media coverage, including la Repubblica, Vanity Fair, Welt am Sonntag, Daily Mail, IZA Newsroom, Population Europe, EurekAlert!. Also the ERC re-launched this article via Twitter (9 April 2019). The American Sociological Association's newsletter publication "Sociological Insights for Development Policy" featured the article in the entry "Broadband Internet, Fertility and Work from Home".

In terms of methodological developments, researchers based at the University of Oxford, with collaboration from other DisCont members, have mainly worked on statistical methods for the study of population change, and in particular for the
detection of discontinuities. This work develops a set of methodological tools for the study of so-called Age-Period-Cohort (APC) models. In addition and
to support these methodological developments, DisCont members contributed to the development of publicly available software package (called
'apc', available at for both the R statistical language and Python. The dissemination of this methodological work is
in line with best practices in the field. Moreover, the project has worked, in collaboration with leading scholars in the field, in the innovative use of 'digital breadcrumbs' data (i.e. data generated on the Internet) for the study of demographic behavior.
We believe that DisCont contributed to modifying the state of the art, in particular for what concerns the effects of the digital revolution on household, family, and fertility. We expect this to expand and consolidate until the end of the project, with additional scientific output providing additional evidence, in terms of both geographical reach and behaviours studies. The additional availability of data, and time spent since the Great Recession and the beginning of the digital revolution, will provide new opportunities. Moreover, as DisCont researchers are increasingly forming a broader network, collaborations are expected to increase. For what concerns methodological developments, we expect to advance further Age-Period-Cohort models and to make these advancements accessible to other scholars.

There will be a careful attention on dissemination activities towards the general public, also thanks to the support of the efficient Press Office of Bocconi university.