Academic journal article Demographic Research

Children's Experiences of Family Disruption in Sweden: Differentials by Parent Education over Three Decades

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Children's Experiences of Family Disruption in Sweden: Differentials by Parent Education over Three Decades

Article excerpt


This paper examines the living arrangements of Swedish children from 1970 through 1999 using the Level of Living Survey. Sweden, with low levels of economic inequality and a generous welfare state, provides an important context for studying socioeconomic differentials in family structure. We find that, although differences by parent education in non-marital childbearing are substantial and persistent, cohabiting childbearing is common even among highly educated Swedish parents. Educational differences in family instability were small during the 1970s, but increased over time as a result of rising union disruption among less-educated parents (secondary graduates or less). Children in more advantaged families experienced substantially less change in family structure and instability over the study period. Although cohabiting parents were more likely to separate than parents married at the child's birth, differences were greater for the less-educated. Data limitations precluded investigating these differences across time. We conclude that educational differences in children's living arrangements in Sweden have grown, but remain small in international comparisons.

1. Introduction

Since the 1960s, increases in cohabitation, divorce, and non-marital childbearing have dramatically altered the structure and stability of children's family lives. These changes in family life, collectively known as the Second Demographic Transition, have emerged in most affluent societies. The consequences have, however, not been distributed equally across the population. Rather, children whose parents are socioeconomically less advantaged have experienced higher rates of family instability and reduced opportunities for their parents and kin to provide a secure childhood environment (McLanahan 2004).

McLanahan argues that governments can do a great deal to minimize the unequal chances of children. She identifies wage inequality, child support enforcement, individual versus couple tax and welfare benefits, and gender equality in the family as arenas within which social policies could reduce inequalities in children's access to a stable, two-parent family. In almost every respect, such policies are already well-established in the Nordic welfare states. And, as McLanahan (2004) reports, socioeconomic differences in family stability appear to be smaller there than in the liberal welfare states.

The Nordic countries are also central to the debate about children's "diverging destinies" (McLanahan 2004) because of the unique role cohabitation plays in Nordic families. McLanahan's argument emphasizes the link between marriage and children's access to a stable family life. In the Nordic countries, however, the greater institutionalization of cohabitation means that cohabiting parents have similar responsibilities and rights as married parents, especially when they have shared biological children. These countries provide a context in which policies designed to support the socioeconomically disadvantaged, as well as parents of all economic means, are not differentiated with respect to legal marital status.

In this paper, we investigate trends in socioeconomic differentials in the family lives of Swedish children during the last quarter of the 20th century. Our study covers a period that includes a severe economic downturn and growth in socioeconomic inequality, as well as increasingly favorable benefits to parents and to the less-educated. Our analysis of the Swedish context provides an important comparison with the well-established situation in the United States, where economic disparities in children's family lives are on the increase (McLanahan 2004).

2. Children's experiences of the Second Demographic Transition

A child's first experience of changing family patterns is the type of union into which he or she is born. In many affluent countries, dramatic increases have been observed in non-marital births. …

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