Increases in cohabitation, nonmarital childbearing, and partnership dissolution have reshaped the family landscape in most Western countries. The United States shares many features of family change common elsewhere, although it is exceptional in its high degree of union instability. In this study, we use the Harmonized Histories to provide a rich, descriptive account of union instability among couples who have had a child together in the United States and several European countries. First, we compare within-country differences between cohabiting and married parents in education, prior family experiences, and age at first birth. Second, we estimate differences in the stability of cohabiting and married parents, paying attention to transitions into marriage among those cohabiting at birth. Finally, we explore the implications of differences in parents’ characteristics for union instability and the magnitude of social class differences in union instability across countries. Although similar factors are associated with union instability across countries, some (prior childbearing, early childbearing) are by far more common in the United States, accounting in part for higher shares separating. The factors associated with union instability—lower education, prior childbearing, early childbearing—also tend to be more tightly packaged in the United States than elsewhere, suggesting greater inequality in resources for children.
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Thanks go to the individual contributors of the Harmonized Histories data file (http://www.nonmarital.org), and especially to Karolin Kubisch at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, who managed survey standardization, cleaning, documentation, and updates.
We exclude a subset of countries from the Harmonized Histories due to concerns about data quality (Germany, Russia), a more restrictive age range than the one included here (Estonia, Poland), a lack of information on key variables (Hungary, the Netherlands, Switzerland), and insufficient sample size for analyses of interest (Belgium, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania).
Limiting our window to births within 10 years of interview (when women are aged 15–45) includes women up to age 35 at the start of the window, after which only a small share of mothers in our study countries go on to have their first union birth.
In Italy and Spain, data are not available on whether the respondent lived with both biological parents to age 15. For these two countries, we instead use information on whether the respondent’s parents ever separated or divorced.
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This article was prepared for the 2016 annual meeting of the Population Association of America, Washington, DC. We thank Gunnar Andersson, Elizabeth Thomson, and the SPaDE/SUDA research group on cohabitation and family complexity for critical conceptual and methodological guidance on our cross-country comparisons. We are also grateful to Andrew Cherlin, Robert Pollak, and the editors and reviewers of Demography for thoughtful comments on earlier drafts, and to Karolin Kubisch, Brienna Perelli-Harris, and other members of the Nonmarital Childbearing Network for their work on the Harmonized Histories.
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Musick, K., Michelmore, K. Cross-National Comparisons of Union Stability in Cohabiting and Married Families With Children. Demography 55, 1389–1421 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-018-0683-6
- Nonmarital childbearing
- Union instability
- Diverging destinies
- Second demographic transition