March 31, 2003 | Press Release

Children's experience of family disruption and family formation: Evidence from 16 FFS countries

In: Demographic Research 7-7.

Andersson, G.: Children's experience of family disruption and family formation: Evidence from 16 FFS countries. Demographic Research [First published online: 14 August 2002]. DOI:10.4054/DemRes.2002.7.7

Abstract

In this paper, we present a number of descriptive measures on children's experience of family disruption and family formation. We use data from the Fertility and Family Surveys of 15 European countries and corresponding data from the USA in order to find out what kind of family circumstances children are born into and what experience they subsequently have of various family-transformation events of their mothers. Our presentation reveals some similarities but also striking differences in the family-demographic experience of children in different countries. The USA stands out as one extreme case with its very high proportion of children born to a lone mother, with a higher probability of children who experience a union disruption of their parents than anywhere else, and with many children having the experience of living in a stepfamily. Italy stands out at the other end of the scale. Practically all children here are born to a married mother and very few of them experience the dissolution of their parents' union before they turn 15.

Introduction

The last three decades have witnessed an upsurge in research on various aspects of the family dynamics of people in developed countries. An increased attention to changes in patterns of family formation and family dissolution, and to consequences of such changes, follows the observed increase in the variation of how people tend to organize their family lives.

A starting point for the present investigation is that we think there is still a need for more and better description of the present state of family-demographic affairs in contemporary Europe. It is indeed important to first know exactly how the situation looks before one tries to explain it, and it is particularly important to get a better picture of various differences and similarities in demographic behavior between different countries in Europe.

In this presentation, we provide a number of descriptive measures on children's experience of various family-demographic events. Our study is a cross-country comparison and it is based on data derived from the last round of European Fertility and Family Surveys (FFS). We use data as reported by children's mothers from 16 countries - from countries in Western and Eastern Europe and from the USA - in order to estimate to what extent children experience events like a union disruption of their parents. Our presentation summarises results from a more extensive set of tabulations provided by Andersson and Philipov (2002), describing various family-demographic experiences of men, women, and children in the countries considered.

Family dynamics of children

First we provide a presentation of the distribution of births over different types of families in the various countries under investigation. Table 1 contains the relative distribution of births during our period(s) of interest that were reported as occurring while the mothers were not living in a union, and while they were living with a partner in a consensual union, or in a marriage, respectively.

Table 1: Relative distribution of births (percent)

Two countries stick out with an exceptionally high proportion of births to lone mothers: the USA with 17 percent of reported births and the former GDR with a figure of 18 percent. A closer inspection reveals that substantial fractions of such children in the GDR soon found themselves living together with their mother and a partner of hers. Other sources tell us that most births to lone mothers in the GDR occurred to women living in so-called living-apart-together relationships. These were typically mothers who had not yet managed to find proper housing for themselves and their partner. Relatively high proportions of births to lone mothers, around 10 percent of newborn children, are also found for France, Austria, Latvia, and Poland. In the rest of Europe, such events are fairly uncommon. For a few Catholic countries in Western/Southern Europe, notably Italy, Spain, and the Flemish parts of Belgium, we find that no more than 1-2 percent of reported births occur to lone mothers.

If we also have a look at the marital status of parents of newborn children, we find that children are typically born in matrimony. This is particularly the case in a number of Catholic countries in Southern and Eastern Europe. During our study period, it is only in Sweden where it is actually very common that childbearing occurs to unmarried parents living in a consensual union. Around half of all children here were born out of wedlock. For Norway, France, and Austria, we find moderately high proportions of births, around 20 percent, occurring to cohabiting but not married mothers.

Children's experience of family dissolution

Table 2 tells us what happens with the children who are born in a union when it comes to their experience of any dissolution of their family of origin. The percent of such children who have ever experienced a family dissolution is reported by the exact ages 3, 9, and 15 years. Two countries show up as having particularly high levels of disruptions of child families: the USA and Latvia. The USA has higher proportions of children with an experience of family dissolution than any other country; 40 percent of children born in a union there have had such an experience when they turn 15. Sweden and the two parts of Germany also have relatively high levels of child-family dissolution; around 30 percent of corresponding children there have such an experience before they turn 15. At the other extreme, we find Italy. Only seven percent of children born in a union there would experience a family dissolution during childhood, if the patterns observed in 1990-95 had prevailed. Such an event is also fairly uncommon for corresponding children in Spain, Slovenia, and Poland, where the comparable figures all stand at a moderate 10 percent. Elsewhere in Europe, it is common to find a national figure of around 20 percent.

A closer examination reveals that children born in marriage typically have only half the probability of experiencing a family disruption during childhood, as compared to children born to cohabiting parents. An excess instability of such a high magnitude is experienced by children born in consensual unions in practically every country in our study.

Table 2: Cumulative percent ever out of union, by exact age of child, for children born in a union

The estimates pertain to synthetic cohorts experiencing the transition rates prevailing six years prior to the survey date

Finally, Table 3 summarizes the information gathered from Tables 1 and 2 in that it reports the cumulative percent of all children who ever have the experience of living outside a union of their two parents by selected ages. (Figure 1 displays the results for a select group of countries.) Children who are born to a lone mother enter already at age 0, while children who are born in a union, and then at some point in time experience a union dissolution of their parents, subsequently add to this initial fraction of children.

Table 3: Cumulative percent ever out of union, by exact age of child

The estimates pertain to synthetic cohorts experiencing the transition rates prevailing six years prior to the survey date

Summary

Evidently, there are both striking differences and strong similarities between countries when it concerns patterns of family-demographic affairs of children. The USA stands out as an extreme case with its very high proportion of children born to a lone mother and with a higher probability that children experience a union disruption of their parents than anywhere else. Italy stands out at the other end of the scale. Practically all children here are born to a married mother and very few of them experience dissolution of their parents' union before they turn 15. The vast majority of children in Europe are born in a union and spend their entire childhood living with both of their original parents. The differences in family conditions between children in the USA and children in Europe, is impressive but important variation also exist between countries in Europe. Our study covers the family-demographic situation in a relatively large number of countries in Europe, from both sides of the former Iron Curtain. We do not find any systematic differences between countries in Eastern Europe and countries in Western Europe but rather a variation between countries within each sphere of the continent. Some European countries are characterised by particularly stable family patterns from the point of view of children. These countries are found in different areas of Europe but all have the trait in common of being strongly dominated by the Catholic confession. European countries with a higher degree of volatility in their family-demographic affairs are all characterised by a less influential role of religion in general and of Catholicism in particular. With the exception of Sweden, it is not really common for children to grow up in families with cohabiting but not married parents.

About the MPIDR

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock investigates the structure and dynamics of populations. The Institute’s researchers explore issues of political relevance, such as demographic change, aging, fertility, and the redistribution of work over the life course, as well as digitization and the use of new data sources for the estimation of migration flows. The MPIDR is one of the largest demographic research bodies in Europe and is a worldwide leader in the study of populations. The Institute is part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research organization.

Original publication

Andersson, G.: Children's experience of family disruption and family formation: Evidence from 16 FFS countries. Demographic Research [First published online: 14 August 2002]. DOI:10.4054/DemRes.2002.7.7

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.