Strings of Adulthood: A Sequence Analysis of Young British Women’s Work-Family Trajectories

Parcours de la vie adulte : Une analyse par séquence des trajectoires travail-famille des jeunes femmes britanniques
  • Arnstein Aassve
  • Francesco C. BillariEmail author
  • Raffaella Piccarreta


Employment, union formation and childbearing are central processes within young individuals’ transition to adulthood. These processes interact in highly complex ways, and they shape actual life-course trajectories that may be seen as a conceptual unit. In this article we use a methodology to cluster life-course experiences, where all three processes are embedded explicitly, in order to study young women’s trajectories in Great Britain. Drawing on a sample from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), we define life-courses as sequences on a monthly time scale and we apply optimal matching analysis to compute dissimilarities between individuals. We then use standard clustering algorithms and we identify nine distinctive groups of women. Our results are then shown using a new representation of clusters and interpreted in the light of the existing socio-demographic literature on the dynamic work-family link.


Work-family trajectories Sequence analysis Transition to adulthood Life-course analysis BHPS 


Le travail, la mise en union et la procréation sont des processus centraux dans le passage vers l’âge adulte. Ces processus interagissent de manière très complexe, et modèlent les trajectoires biographiques, qui peuvent être considérées comme une unité conceptuelle. Dans cet article, nous utilisons une méthodologie pour catégoriser des expériences biographiques, en considérant que les 3 processus sont explicitement imbriqués, de manière à étudier les trajectoires des jeunes femmes en Grande Bretagne. A partir d’un échantillon du Panel Britannique des Ménages («BHPS»), la biographie est découpée en séquences sur une base mensuelle, et une analyse d’appariement optimale est appliquée pour calculer les dissemblances entre individus. Des algorithmes d’analyse de groupes sont ensuite utilisés, permettant d’identifier 9 groupes distincts de femmes. Les résultats sont illustrés à l’aide d’une nouvelle représentation des groupes, et interprétés à la lumière de la littérature socio-démographique sur la dynamique des relations famille-travail.


Trajectoires famille-travail Analyse par séquence Passage à l’âge adulte Analyse biographique BHPS 



We are grateful to participants of the Workshop “Becoming an Adult: an International Perspective on the Transitions to Adulthood, Montreal, 15–17 June 2006”. as well as to two anonymous referees of this journal for very useful comments and suggestions. The data (and tabulations) used in this publication were made available through the UK Data Archive. The data were originally collected by the ESRC Research Centre on Micro-social Change at the University of Essex, now incorporated within the Institute for Social and Economic Research. Neither the original collectors of the data nor the Archive bear any responsibility for the analyses or interpretations presented here.


  1. Abbott, A., & Hrycak, A. (1990). Measuring resemblance in sequence data: An optimal matching analysis of musicians’ careers. American Journal of Sociology, 96, 144–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Abbott, A., & Tsay, A. (2000). Sequence analysis and optimal matching methods in sociology. Sociological Methods & Research, 29, 3–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Beck, U., & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1995). The normal chaos of love. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  4. Billari, F. C. (2001). The analysis of early life courses: Complex descriptions of the transition to adulthood. Journal of Population Research, 18, 119–142.Google Scholar
  5. Billari, F. C., & Piccarreta, R. (2005). Analysing demographic life courses through sequence analysis. Mathematical Population Studies, 12, 81–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Billari, F. C., Fürnkranz, J., & Prskawetz, A. (2006). Timing, sequencing, and quantum of life course events: A machine learning approach. European Journal of Population, 22, 37–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Blair-Loy, M. (1999). Career patterns of executive women in finance: An optimal matching analysis. American Journal of Sociology, 104(5), 1346–1397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chan, T. W. (1995). Optimal matching analysis: A methodological note on studying career mobility. Work and Occupations, 22, 467–490.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Clarkberg, M., & Hynes, K. (2005). Women’s employment patterns during early parenthood: A group-based trajectory analysis. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67(1), 222–239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dijkstra, W., & Taris, T. (1995). Measuring the agreement between sequences. Sociological Methods & Research, 24, 214–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Elzinga, C. H. (2003). Sequence similarity: A non-aligning technique. Sociological Methods & Research, 31, 3–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Elzinga, C. H. (2005). Combinatorial representation of token sequences. Journal of Classification, 21(1), 87–118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Elder, G. H. (1985). Life course dynamics trajectories and transitions, 1968–1980. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Giele, J. Z., & Elder, G. H. Jr. (Eds.) (1998). Methods of life course research. qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  15. Goldin, C. (2006). The quiet revolution that transformed women’s employment, education, and family. 2006 Ely Lecture, American Economic Association Meetings, Boston MA.Google Scholar
  16. Hakim, C. (2002). Lifestyle preferences as determinants of women’s differentiated labor market careers. Work and Occupations, 29(4), 428–459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hakim, C. (2003). A new approach to explaining fertility patterns: Preference theory. Population and Development Review, 29(3), 349–374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Halpin, B., & Chan, T. W. (1998). Class careers as sequences: An optimal matching analysis of work-life histories. European Sociological Review, 14, 111–130.Google Scholar
  19. Kauffman, L., & Rousseeuw, P. J. (1990). Finding groups in Data. New York: Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
  20. Lesnard, L. (2006). Optimal matching and social sciences, INSEE, Série des Documents de Travail du Crest, N. 2006–01, Paris.Google Scholar
  21. Malo, M. A., & Munoz-Bùllon, F. (2003). Employment status mobility from a life-cycle perspective: A sequence analysis of work-histories in the BHPS. Demographic Research, 9, 119–161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. McVicar, D., & Anyadike-Danes, M. (2001). Predicting successful and unsuccessful transitions from school to work by using sequence methods. Journal of the Royal Statistical Association, Series A, 165, 317–334.Google Scholar
  23. Modell, J., Furstenberg, F. F. Jr., & Hershberg, T. (1976). Social change and transitions to adulthood in historical perspective. Journal of Family History, 1, 7–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Moen, P., & Orrange, R. M. (2002). Careers and lives: Socialization, structural lag, and gendered ambivalence. In R. A. Settersten Jr., & T. Owens (Eds.), Advances in life course research: New frontiers in socialization (pp. 231–260). London: Elsevier Science.Google Scholar
  25. Moen, P., & Sweet, S. (2004). From ‘work-family’ to ‘flexible careers’. Community, Work & Family, 7(2), 209–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Oechsle, M., & Geissler, B. (2003). Between paid work and private commitments: Women’s perceptions of time and life planning in young adulthood. Time and Society, 12, 79–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ravanera, Z. R., & Rajulton, F. (2004). Work and family life trajectories of young canadians: Evidence from the 2001 general social survey, Discussion Paper no. 04–10, Population Studies Centre, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada.Google Scholar
  28. Rindfuss, R. R. (1991). The young adult years: Diversity, structural change, and fertility. Demography, 28, 493–512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Rohwer, G., & Pötter, U. (2005). TDA user’s manual. Bochum: Ruhr-Universität-Bochum.Google Scholar
  30. Sankoff, D., & Kruskal, J. B. (1983). Time warps, string edits and macromolecules: The theory and practice of sequence comparison. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  31. Scherer, S. (1999) Early career patterns: A comparison of Great Britain and Germany. European Sociological Review, 17, 119–144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Schoon, I. (2001) Teenage job aspirations and career attainment in adulthood: A 17-year follow-up study of teenagers who aspired to become scientists, health professionals, or engineers. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 25, 124–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Schoon, I., McCullough, A., Joshi, H., Wiggins, R., & Bynner, J. (2001) Transitions from school to work in a changing social context. Young, 9, 4–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Settersten, R. A., & Mayer, K. U. (1997). The measurement of age, age structuring and the life course. Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 233–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Siegers, J. J., de Jong-Gierveld, J., & van Imhoff, E. (Eds.) (1991). Female labour market behaviour and fertility: A rational-choice approach. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  36. Taylor, M. F., Brice, J., Buck, N., & Prentice-Lane, E. (2005) British household panel survey user manual volume A: Introduction, technical report and appendices. Colchester: University of Essex.Google Scholar
  37. van der Heijden, P. G. M. (1987). Correspondence analysis of longitudinal categorical data. Leiden: DSWO Press.Google Scholar
  38. Ward, J. H. (1963). Hierarchical grouping to optimize an objective function. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 58, 236–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Wu, L. L. (2000). Some comments on ‘Sequence analysis and optimal matching methods in sociology: Review and prospect’. Sociology Methods and Research, 29(1), 41–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Arnstein Aassve
    • 1
  • Francesco C. Billari
    • 2
    Email author
  • Raffaella Piccarreta
    • 3
  1. 1.ISERUniversity of EssexWivenhoe Park, ColchesterUK
  2. 2.Carlo F. Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics, IMQ and IGIERUniversità BocconiMilanoItaly
  3. 3.IMQ and Carlo F. Dondena Centre for Research on Social DynamicsUniversità BocconiMilanoItaly

Personalised recommendations