Volume 44 - Article 32 | Pages 775–810  

The complexity of employment and family life courses across 20th century Europe: More evidence for larger cross-national differences but little change across 1916‒1966 birth cohorts

By Zachary Van Winkle, Anette Fasang


Background: There has been much debate whether work and family lives became more complex in past decades, that is, exhibiting more frequent transitions and more uncertainty. Van Winkle and Fasang (2017) and Van Winkle (2018) first benchmarked change in employment and family complexity over time against cross-national differences in 14 European countries. Compared to sizeable and stable cross-national differences, the increase in employment and family complexity was small across cohorts. However, these studies could not include cohorts born past the late 1950s assumed to be most affected by the structural changes driving life course complexity and were limited to a relatively small set of West European countries.

Objective: We replicate and extend these studies by adding over 15 additional countries in Eastern Europe and a decade of younger birth cohorts.

Methods: The 3rd and 7th waves of the Survey of Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe, sequence complexity metrics, and cross-classified modelling are used to simultaneously quantify the proportions of variance attributable to cohort and country differences in work and family lives between ages 18 to 50.

Results: The updated findings still support a negligible increase in family complexity and a moderate increase in employment complexity that pale in comparison to large and stable cross-national differences for individuals born between 1916 and 1966 for work and family lives experienced from 1934 to 2016 in 30 European countries. Specifically, 15 and 10% of employment and family complexity is nested across countries, compared to 5.5 and 2% across birth cohorts. However, the analyses also indicate a polarization in Europe between most Eastern and Southern European countries with stable and low family complexity compared to Nordic and some Western European countries with high and increasing family complexity. In contrast, moderately increasing employment complexity is a Europe-wide trend.

Conclusions: This study both replicates the original studies’ findings that cross-cohort change is minor compared to large cross-national differences, and is a substantive extension by addressing a large deficit of description on family and employment life course change in the Balkan and Baltic regions.

Contribution: Cross-national comparisons are particularly promising for understanding the institutional drivers of employment and family instability.

Author's Affiliation

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