The Influence of Parents on Cohabitation in Italy: Insights from Two Regional Contexts

Article excerpt


In view of the demographic changes that affect all European countries, the diffusion of new living arrangements such as non-marital cohabitation is particularly interesting. In this article we concentrate on Italy, a country that is characterized by a low pace in the diffusion of cohabitation. Earlier studies found statistical evidence of the impact of parents' characteristics on young adults' decisions for cohabitation. However, there is only limited empirical knowledge about the actual mechanism through which parents influence the choices of their children. We employ qualitative research methods and focus on two regional contexts in order to analyze if and how parents intervene in the choices of young adults.

1. Introduction

In Italy, union and family formation are characterized by several peculiarities, making the country stand out as far as demographic development in Europe is concerned: Italy witnesses both strong postponement of events related to the transition to adulthood (such as leaving home, forming a union and becoming a parent) and high synchronization between leaving the parental home and entry into marriage (Billari 2004; Billari et al. 2000; Ongaro 2004). Despite the unbroken importance of marital union, marriage rates started to decrease from the mid-1970s onwards. The drop, however, was not compensated by a rise in the incidence of alternative living arrangements, such as cohabitation. Rather, it created a vacuum as a large proportion of young adults continue to stay with their family of origin rather than form a union (Kiernan 1999; De Sandre et al. 1997).

Thus, whereas most European countries have witnessed to some degree strong increases in informal unions over recent decades, the same is not true for Italy. By 2000-01, the highest levels of cohabitation were found in the Northern European countries of Sweden, Denmark, and Finland as well as in France. Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, and Great Britain were in the middle group, whereas Southern European countries showed the lowest cohabitation rates (see Figure 1). Although cohabitation figures started to rise in Italy too, the country continues to remain at the low end of the scale. Moreover, Italy is shaped by a high degree of regional heterogeneity. In 2001, 3.6% of all Italian couples were living in cohabitation. In the northern regions, especially in Valle D'Aosta and Emilia-Romagna, the proportion was between 5% and 8%. In Southern Italy we find figures below 2% (ISTAT 2001).

Previous research focused mainly on the diffusion aspects of cohabitation in Italy, paying almost no attention to the mechanisms responsible for the hesitant development of informal unions in the country. In general, it is argued that economic dependence on the family, the rigid structure of the housing market, high youth unemployment rates, and traditionally strong family ties hamper the formation of informal unions (Ferrera 1996; Holdsworth and Irazoqui Solda 2002; Bernardi and Nazio 2005; Reher 1998; Rosina and Fraboni 2004; Di Giulio and Rosina 2007).

Since there is only limited knowledge about the actual mechanism through which parents influence the choices of their children, we are interested in the question of how - if at all - parents intervene in the choices their children make about entering cohabitation and whether young adults are indeed hampered by their family when it comes to non-marital union formation.

Rosina and Fraboni (2004) claim that a relationship exists between strong family ties and the development of cohabitation in Italy. Since parents are economically and emotionally deeply involved in the lives of their adult children, they consider the success (and failure) of their children in various aspects of life as a consequence of their own far-sighted family strategy. Since parents tend to discourage their offspring from behaving in a way that is socially disregarded (such as cohabitation), their adult children have to rely on prevailing traditions, norms, and values when making choices. …