Is family break-up turning a corner?
We live in pessimistic times, but ERC-funded researcher Professor Gøsta Esping-Andersen sees reason for optimism. Whereas many have looked at negative social
trends and predicted that changes in women’s roles mean the demise of the stable family, he sees evidence for light at the end of the tunnel — a promising perspective for the UN International Day of Families, 15 May.
Most of us are familiar with newspaper stories reporting declining fertility, or rising divorce rates and increases in the number of single parents. Of course, the potential impact of unstable families on children’s life chances makes it vital to understand these phenomena.
According to Prof Esping-Andersen, an ERC Advanced Grantee 2010, much research in demography sees these trends as the product of increased individual choice and self- realisation, accompanied by a decline in adherence to broadly shared social assumptions and guidelines — sometimes called the “post-modern” model.
“I’m sceptical,” he says. “The mistake is to see rises in divorce and declining fertility as ongoing. I argue that they are non-linear; these are just symptoms of a transitional phase from traditional family models to new ones that are increasingly premised on egalitarian and symmetric gender roles.”
For Prof Esping-Andersen the clues are in the figures: in several European countries, there is clear evidence that the “negative correlation between female employment and births is turning positive” and the “educational gradient of couple formation and divorce is turning upside down.”
In other words, whereas divorce and low fertility used to be more prevalent among highly educated women, these groups now see more stable couples and larger families. Meanwhile, in Denmark for example, it is less educated women who seem to have fewer children, experience higher rates of divorce and raise families as unmarried single parents.
To explain this, Prof Esping-Andersen proposes a new theoretical model: a “diffusion process” in specific groups within society whereby slow, gradual changes suddenly accelerate when a “critical mass” is achieved. “Danish men’s input to domestic work hardly changed at all between the 1960s and 1980s, but from the 1990s onwards they started sharing in it almost equally,” he says.
“The higher educated were at the vanguard of such changes,” he continues, as they were the first to embrace a gender-equal model for the family. Nowadays, it is university-educated women who are having larger families. “Trust and shared expectations are the key,” according to Prof Esping-Andersen, along with increased employment opportunities for women and affordable childcare.
Working with the best
The ERC grant will enable Prof. Esping-Andersen to test this hypothesis further. Since his grant began in June 2011, this research is still in its early stages. But the funding has already helped him gather a team to analyse data from some of the best resources in the world, such as the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) in the US and the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) in the UK.
“We need to use rich data that follows people over a long period of time,” he explains: data which looks at divorce rates, fertility, etc. across different countries. Having noted rapid changes in Scandinavia, France and Spain, he is now working on models that can explain striking divergences in social trends. “This was the first sign to me that I was on the right track,” he says.
In some countries, like Germany, couples based on traditional gender roles - with a male breadwinner and stay-at-home mother- are still the most stable, whereas in countries such as Denmark and Sweden these couples are the most prone to divorce. Prof Esping-Andersen sees this as evidence that the negative trends of previous decades can be reversed, beginning with the higher educated and eventually spreading to the rest of society.
It could be that low fertility and high divorce rates simply reflect an unstable transition period between traditional families and new dual-career models, rather than a permanent decline in family stability. His ERC-funded project will run until May 2016, so there is plenty of time for Prof Esping-Andersen to overturn some pessimistic assumptions about where the family is heading.