Cohort Change in the Family Complexity of Adults and Children in the United Kingdom

Carla Rowold , University of Oxford
Zachary Van Winkle , § SciencePo and Nuffield College

Although research on the complexity of family lives is motivated by its potential consequences for children, few studies have assessed to what extent children have been exposed to increased family complexity. We assessed how family complexity evolved over the life course of adults in the United Kingdom, how it varied by birth cohort, gender, and parenthood status, and most importantly, how it varied across the early life courses of children by birth cohort. We used rich retrospective partnership histories from UKHLS and BHPS to reconstruct adults’ family life courses born across the 20th Century and calculate their complexity. We then transposed parents’ family sequences to reflect what their children experienced in their first 16 years of life. Our methodological approach presents the first step in pairing techniques developed in sequence analysis with longitudinal regression-based analyses for estimating the association between life course family complexity and children’s wellbeing. We find an increasing level and growth of life course family complexity over cohorts. Mothers have the largest family life course complexity, followed by fathers, childless women and, lastly, by childless men. These differences converge across cohorts. Changing the perspective from parents to children we reveal that children’s family complexity has increased dramatically across birth cohorts – for both, mothers’ and fathers’ family lives. Indicating that children of the youngest cohort experience a higher number of family transitions and unpredictability already at very young ages, our results set the starting point for future research on the consequences of such increasing family complexity for children.

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 Presented in Session 11. Flash session: intersections of family formation and employment during the life course