The Effect of Parental Separation on Young Adults’ Political and Civic Participation


Whereas an extensive literature exists on the effect of parental separation on young adults’ health, well-being and educational attainment, relatively little is known about its effect on young adults’ political and civic engagement. The current paper aims to remedy this deficiency and explore to what extent parental separation affects young adults’ likelihood to vote and volunteer. Taking insights from the social learning and parental status theories, we argue that because of separated parents’ overall lower levels of political and civic engagement as well as socioeconomic status compared with parents who are living together, young adults with separated parents will be less likely to engage in political and civic life compared with those whose parents are living together. Using data from the Swiss Household Panel Survey (1999–2009), our analyses reveal in line with our expectations that parental separation has a negative effect on young adults’ voting and volunteering patterns. Supporting the social learning theory, this negative effect of parental divorce or separation can be partly explained by the lower levels of political and civic engagement among separated parents compared with parents who are living together.

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  1. 1.

    Throughout the text we use the word separation to refer to both divorce and separation (also after unmarried cohabitation).

  2. 2.

    The original sample of all household members in 1999 contained 7,788 individuals (from 5,074 households). In 2009 61.6 % (4,800 individuals from 2,718 households) of the original sample were still in the panel. In 2004 a refresher sample of 3,654 individuals started (from 2,538 households). Of this refresher sample 63.2 % (2,309 individuals from 1,475 households) were still successfully followed in 2009. In total, there were 7,109 individuals living in 4,406 households still in the sample in 2009. The survey included new household members entering the household in the sample and individuals leaving the household remained in the sample as well. Studies on the quality of the SHP data indicated that attrition in the SHP was relatively high, yet non-response bias was mild, and comparable to other large household panel studies (Lipps 2007; Voorpostel 2010).

  3. 3.

    From the respondents whose parents separated while in the panel we only kept the observations after the parental separation. We disregarded parents who were widowed.

  4. 4.

    As is common in surveys, participation in the SHP is higher among women than men. Men are also somewhat more likely to drop out of panel studies than women (Voorpostel 2010; Stoop 2005) As a result, the sample for respondents and their fathers is smaller than for respondents and their mothers.

  5. 5.

    In our sample, 16 % (n = 819) of the mothers are separated and 4 % (n = 148) of the fathers are separated. The vast majority of the separated parents are legally divorced: 87 % of the separated mothers and 80 % of the separated fathers.

  6. 6.

    The majority of young adults in our sample lived with their parents: 88.6 % for the mother–child dyads and 89.3 % for the father–child dyads. As it is harder to locate sample members after they move (Lepkowski and Couper 2002), children in this age group who moved out and no longer live with their parents are more likely to drop out compared to respondents from households where such changes did not take place. As a result, the parent–child dyads who share a household are most likely somewhat overrepresented.

  7. 7.

    Unfortunately we were not able to include household income. As is common in surveys, there was a high number of missing values for this variable (around 20 %).

  8. 8.

    Preliminary analyses indicated that the variance on the family level was not significant in most models (the group sizes are small, and many families have only one adult child in the data). Hence, we present the more parsimonious two-level models.

  9. 9.

    Given the limited number of respondents who experience parental separation while in the study, we were unable to pursue the alternative analytical strategy of fixed effects models.

  10. 10.

    We assessed the statistical reliability of the models and found that the models were stable. Examination of the residuals assured us that there were no strong violations of the model assumptions.

  11. 11.

    Note that the number of respondents with separated fathers is relatively small (n = 142 for voting frequency, and n = 148 for volunteering) which may explain why on the overall the effect of separation is less significant for the analyses (for both voting frequency and volunteering) looking at fathers compared with those focusing on the mother-young adults dyads.


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The authors are grateful to Laura Stoker for her valuable suggestions and the fruitful discussions. They would also like to thank Harry Chapman for his editorial help. This study uses data from the Swiss Household Panel (SHP), which is based at the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences FORS. The SHP is financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

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Correspondence to Marieke Voorpostel.

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Voorpostel, M., Coffé, H. The Effect of Parental Separation on Young Adults’ Political and Civic Participation. Soc Indic Res 124, 295–316 (2015).

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  • Separation
  • Divorce
  • Young adults
  • Voting frequency
  • Volunteering