Academic journal article Demographic Research

Family Life in Power Couples: Continued Childbearing and Union Stability among the Educational Elite in Sweden, 1991-2005

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Family Life in Power Couples: Continued Childbearing and Union Stability among the Educational Elite in Sweden, 1991-2005

Article excerpt


This article studies continued childbearing and union stability among "power couples," or dual-career couples. The determinants of these events are analysed multivariately using longitudinal data on couples from population registers in Sweden, 1991-2005. Power couples are identified using their levels and fields of education, and their sectors of employment. Income and other variables are controlled for. The results show that power couples are more likely to continue childbearing, and are less likely to separate, than other couples. This implies that, despite the expected higher opportunity costs of childbearing and the small gains to specialisation, power couples who start families are able to combine career and continued childbearing.

1. Introduction

A "power couple" is a feature of modern life that is defined as two individuals, both having high -powered careers, or being influential otherwise (see Costa and Kahn 2000; Compton and Pollak 2004). Today's power couples are different from those of the past (Abbott 2003), and the growth in the number of these couples is related to the huge increase in women's education and labour force participation since the 1960s, and the increased prevalence of the dual-earner family. In a dual-earner couple, both partners have jobs, but only one of the partners has a career. Power couples differ from dual-earner couples in that both partners pursue careers characterised by high professional standards, continuous progress through a hierarchy, and high degrees of challenge and commitment. Power couples therefore face a number of challenges, of which co-location and geographic mobility, together with family responsibilities, are the most important.

These issues affect women's careers more than men's careers. Due to the perceived incompatibility of family and career, researchers throughout the Western world have tended to view "opting out" (Stone 2007), late and low fertility, and increasing levels of childlessness among highly educated and professional women as responses to the high opportunity costs associated with childbearing (e.g., Gerson 1985; Hewlett 2003). There are, however, theoretical reasons to suppose that power couples with high earnings potential might not have lower fertility than other couples, and may indeed be more likely to continue childbearing than those with moderate earnings potential. Empirical tests of this assumption are, however, rare. We wish to help fill this gap by analysing continued childbearing and union stability in power couples in Sweden since 1990. We focus on the childbearing patterns of couples in which both partners are university graduates, and who are therefore more likely than other couples to have high powered careers. In the analysis, we also take into account union dissolution by using a multinomial logit model to simultaneously analyse the impact of the explanatory variables on having a birth and separating. The analyses are made using longitudinal data from population registers in Sweden 1991-2005.

2. Theoretical background and previous research

2.1 Power couples

Power couples, or dual-career households (cf. Rapoport and Rapoport 1969, 1971; Costa and Kahn 2000), make up a small share of the population, but are nevertheless becoming increasingly common as more women and men acquire academic degrees and choose to pursue high powered careers. Power couples are often said to have coupled or coordinated careers (Bernasco 1994), because this is what distinguishes them from the more common dual-earner couples. The often-cited difficulties associated with combining career and family lead many professional women and men in dual-career households to limit their family size or remain childless (Altucher and Williams 2003). Whereas some remain childless by choice to avert the negative impact that parenthood might have on their careers (Bram 1985; Tanturri and Mencarini 2008), Hewlett (2002) argues that many successful female professionals in the United States find themselves in this situation through a "creeping non-choice," because each year, for the sake of work, they put off family formation, and then one day discover it is too late to have children. …

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