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Intergenerational Reproduction and Solidarity in an Era of Family Complexity

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - FamilyComplexity (Intergenerational Reproduction and Solidarity in an Era of Family Complexity)

Reporting period: 2018-11-01 to 2020-01-31

As a result of the divorce revolution which has occurred in all western societies in the past fifty years, the nature of parent-child relationships has been changing rapidly. An increasing number of children grow up with multiple ‘types’ of parents: resident and non-resident biological parents, as well as, the possible partners of these parents. Similarly, more and more parents have multiple types of children: children from a current union, children from a former union, with whom they do or do not share a household, and possibly stepchildren. This increase in what can be called ‘family complexity’ has raised important questions about the foundations of parent-child relationships. Family complexity may also have important consequences in the long run, when children are adult and parents are ageing. Although adult parent-child relationships are generally strong in western societies increases in family complexity warrant further theorizing and new data for better understanding of the present-day diversity of such ties.

The aim of this project is to study how rising family complexity has affected two fundamental aspects of intergenerational relationships: reproduction and solidarity. Intergenerational reproduction is defined as the transmission of individual characteristics and behaviors across generations (e.g. educational attainment). Intergenerational solidarity has been defined as the degree to which parents and their adult, independently living children provide each other with support, combined with feelings of obligation and affection which foster this support.

Understanding the long-term repercussions of family complexity is essential for two main reasons. Foremost, family complexity adds an important element to debates about population ageing. Life expectancy beyond the retirement age has increased considerably which has implied increasing shared life time of the generations. This has increased the demand for social, emotional, and practical support from adult children. Especially during old age, having high-quality relationships with adult children is essential for the well-being of older parents. This increase in ‘demand’ for solidarity may well be at odds with rising family complexity, which may have reduced or at least complicated the ‘supply’ of solidarity. Furthermore, family complexity is a new element in the classic debate about ascription vis-à-vis achievement in the generation of inequality. Did the growing instability of marriage weaken the intergenerational transmission of traits? This could be the case if divorced fathers – and perhaps divorced mothers too – have a weaker influence on their children than married parents. Some authors have even suggested that divorce is an equalizing force in society, in contrast to the more common notion of diverging destinies which argues that single parenthood is not only increasingly common among the lower strata but also more consequential in these groups. To resolve this debate, we need a more nuanced look at the various forces of ascription that children are exposed to when they are young.
The major achievement of the team, over the course of the first half of this project, has been the completion of the necessary data collection, titled Ouders en kinderen in Nederland (OKiN; Parents and children in the Netherlands). This included questionnaire development and programming, training of interviewers, data collection and cleaning, and codebook preparation. Currently, a complete codebook is available via the project’s website and a publicly available version of the data will be released in Fall 2018. Concurrently, all team members have been working on a number of papers, first, using already available data sources (e.g. NKPS, LISS, register data, GGS, GSOEP) and subsequently, using the OKiN data. Presently, one paper using OKiN is already accepted for publication and several are under review in diverse academic journals. The papers using alternative data sources have been published in high ranking journals such as European Sociological Review and Demography. Finally, the team has presented the OKiN data and relevant findings to diverse academic audiences (e.g. European Population Conference, Mainz, 2016; European Consortium for Sociological Research, Tallinn, 2015; Oxford, 2016; and Milan 2017), as well as, to the general public (e.g. presentation during the first congress on reconstituted families, organized by a Dutch NGO (Stiefgoed Academie)).
Though the comparison of biological vs non-biological parent-child ties has been a topic of research for a number of years in the fields of psychology and (family) sociology, this project will make a major contribution to understanding the repercussions of family complexity in two main ways. Foremost, rather than analysing family complexity solely in terms of the traditional opposition between stepparents and biological parents, or in terms of the more recently studied dichotomy of married and divorced fathers, we conceptualize family complexity along four dimensions: (a) differences in the length, nature, and timing of exposure to a parental figure; (b) differences in biological relatedness to a parental figure; (c) differences in the connections that pairs of parents have with each other and that may affect parent-child ties (triadic effects); and (d) differences in the configuration of the entire family system (network effects). Examples of the first dimension are the age at divorce, the age at which the stepparent enters the child’s life, and variation in visiting arrangements and co-parenting. For the second dimension, the main question is about the impact of biological relatedness while controlling for exposure differences. Comparisons between biological parents and stepparents are biased by such differences and we thus need to consider these dimensions simultaneously. An example of the third dimension – triadic effects – lies in the notion of kin-keeping: when gender roles are traditional, fathers who divorce lose not only a partner but also someone who connects them to their children, the female kin-keeper. In a more general sense, parents may be connected to their children via each other. An example of network effects – the fourth dimension – lies in the number of parents that children have: these parents can substitute each other but they can also ‘work together’. The degree of harmony and balance in the parent-parent network may also have an effect on child outcomes or on children’s ties to each parent. This theoretical contribution of the project will be made explicitly evident throughout the doctoral theses of the PhD candidates, as well as, through the collaborative papers, co-authored by the team members (e.g. the current paper in preparation, titled “Contemporary differences in the strength of adult intergenerational ties: A double multi-actor analysis of family complexity”).

Second, the project is innovative from a methodological point of view, given the already executed large-scale multi-actor data collection. While multi-actor data have been collected earlier, the way it is done here is special. The start was a stratified random sample of children who were 25-45 years old and which contained a register-based oversample of children who grew up in non-intact families (final sample size of 6,485 adult children, 71.9% from non-intact households). Participants were asked about all parent figures with whom they grew up, thus making it possible to apply a multiple-parent design where the children are the higher-level units and the parents are the lower-level units. Additionally, data were independently collected from the children’s parent figures, who were asked about all the children (step and biological) in their lives (final sample size of 9,325 parent figures, of which 41.9% reported having at least one stepchild). This yields a multiple-child design where parents are the higher-level units of analysis and adult children are the lower level units. The unique features of OKiN have been detailed in the recently published data brief in the top tier journal in Sociology, European Sociological Review (see publications).