Volume 45 - Article 15 | Pages 469–516  

Parental socioeconomic status and the timing of first marriage: What is the role of unmarried cohabitation? Results from a cross-national comparison

By Anne Brons, Aart C. Liefbroer, Harry B.G. Ganzeboom


Background: Previous research has shown that individuals from high-status families enter marriage later than those from low-status families. However, in many Western societies, it has become common to cohabit prior to marriage. Does this change the link between parental socioeconomic status (SES) and marriage timing?

Objective: This study examines to what extent the impact of parental SES on the timing of first marriage weakens after young adults start a cohabiting union. It also examines cross-national variation in the link between parental SES and marriage timing before and after young adults cohabit and whether this variation depends on countries’ position in the cohabitation transition.

Methods: We apply discrete-time hazard models and meta-analytical tools using data from 20 Western countries. To examine whether the cohabitation stage of countries explains country differences, we construct a four-stage cohabitation typology.

Results: In most countries, higher parental SES results in later entry into marriage. The impact of parental SES on marriage timing weakens considerably after young adults entered a cohabiting union. Substantial cross-national variation is found in the strength of the link between parental SES and marriage timing. However, this variation cannot be explained by the cohabitation stage countries are in.

Contribution: First, this study provides fresh evidence of the influence of parental SES on family formation in Western countries. Second, it shows the importance of a life-course perspective, as parental SES matters less after young adults start a cohabiting union. Third, it presents a theory-based and empirically-tested typology of stages in the cohabitation transition.

Author's Affiliation

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