Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Child-Free and Unmarried: Changes in the Life Planning of Young East German Women

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Child-Free and Unmarried: Changes in the Life Planning of Young East German Women

Article excerpt

Using evidence from demographic and survey data, this research examines how one decade of postsocialism has changed the life planning of young East German women. Aggregate data reflect marriage and fertility postponement and increased nonmarital birth rates and cohabitation. The analysis shows East German women's "stubbornness" (Dolling, 2003) in adhering to life perspectives in line with the German Democratic Republic (GDR) standard biography (high nonmarital childbearing, high work orientation, rejection of the homemaker status, desire to combine work and family). The most important findings are that (a) motherhood is postponed to increase child-free time, (b) cohabitation is increasingly becoming an alternative to marriage, (c) marriage (but not partnership) is increasingly optional for childbearing, and (d) employment is prioritized over family formation.

Key Words: East German women, family formation, gender, life planning, work and family.

German unification has brought into focus the dramatic differences in women's biographies in East and West Germany. The immediate postsocialist era witnessed economic turmoil, the reduction in women's employment opportunities, a dramatic fertility decrease, and postponement in marriages and births in East Germany (Adler, 1997, 2002; Kreyenfeld, 2000). Changed family policies and the massive economic dislocation of women caused by the collapse of the East German labor market have threatened the German Democratic Republic (GDR) role model of the employed mother (Finzel, 2003), and the GDR gender contract that defined women's and men's roles in dual-earner terms. Since unification, young East German women have been confronted with the West German gender contract based on male breadwinners and female homemakers.

The record-breaking reductions in marriage and birth rates in East Germany in the years following unification have been described as demographic "revolution," "shock," or "crisis" (Adler, 1997; Mau & Zapf, 1998; Münz & Ulrich, 1995). According to Münz and Ulrich, the dominant causal interpretations of this rapid demographic transformation are (a) profound feelings of insecurity and uncertainty after a societal crisis, (b) expanded opportunities and more lifestyle options, and (c) a rapid assimilation to West German behavior. The latter is the "gender-blind" assimilation thesis, which argues that the high and early marriage, birth, and divorce rates typical in the GDR will eventually adjust to later West German levels (Mau & Zapf). East Germans are predicted to adapt to Western consumption patterns and to "learn how and when families can be started, even under conditions of insecurity, freedom of choice, and consumer alternatives" (Münz & Ulrich, p. 10). The most recent projection of the German Statistical Office (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2003) expects a demographic convergence as early as 2008.

Nevertheless, a more gender-sensitive approach to these demographic trends may reveal that various aspects of the GDR gender contract have survived unification. The concept gender contract refers to the social, cultural, and institutional arrangements that define and reinforce the terms and conditions of gender relations in the public (production) and private (reproduction) spheres (see Pfau-Effinger, 1993). It provides an analytical tool for the classification of societies, based on their dominant gender division of labor in market and family, as strong or weak male breadwinner regimes. In terms of this model, West Germany reinforced the traditional male breadwinner/female homemaker gender contract while the GDR developed a gender contract designed to dismantle this structure by favoring dual-earner couples (Dolling, 2003). West German social policies encourage stay-at-home motherhood and have resulted in relatively low female employment rates. In contrast, GDR policies were grounded in the female ideal as employed mother, aimed at facilitating the reconciliation of employment and motherhood, and produced very high female labor force participation rates. …

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