Education and family change: A comparative study of shifts in the timing and structure of family formation

Sheela Kennedy, University of Pennsylvania


The work and family lives of young adults have changed dramatically since the 1960s. Women are delaying childbearing and marriage, and fertility has fallen to unprecedented lows in many countries. Increases in nonmarital childbearing, cohabitation, and divorce have diversified the structure of family life. Over the same period, women's educational attainment and labor force opportunities have expanded widely in wealthy countries, while the economic opportunities of young men have generally declined. Many family researchers posit a causal link among these dramatic changes in the lives of young women and men. My dissertation approaches these broad changes by focusing on women's educational attainment, an important intervening variable in economic and cultural explanations for family change. I examined patterns of family change in seven countries: the US, Italy, Spain, East and West Germany, France, and Norway. I found that although delays in marriage are nearly universal both within and across these societies, changes in cohabitation and fertility varied significantly with women's education. For some, the more educated women in these societies, marriage delay and the rise of cohabitation appears to be part of a pattern of delayed family formation. Highly educated women delayed childbearing substantially in most countries, and nonmarital childbearing remained uncommon among university graduates. Fertility delays among women with less education were nearly always shorter and often non-existent. Single women without high school degrees were typically the group most likely to have a birth outside of marriage. These findings suggest that cultural changes cannot, on their own, explain recent family change. I also found substantial differences between these countries in the patterns of family change. Most notable were the much longer delays in motherhood in Southern Europe and West Germany, variation across countries in the relationship between education and cohabitation, and the small size of educational differences in East Germany. My findings point to the potentially important roles of the welfare state, family policy, and long-standing cultural differences in shaping the impact of larger economic and cultural changes on family formation.

Subject Area

Demographics|Families & family life|Personal relationships|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Kennedy, Sheela, "Education and family change: A comparative study of shifts in the timing and structure of family formation" (2005). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3165714.