The ViDSS Blog

First a job, then a family?

If you ask a 22-year-old if they want children, they are likely to say “maybe”. Not because they don’t imagine someday having a family, but because they have a lot to do before then. When we talk about starting a family we are actually talking about a series of events across several different life course domains working in coordination with each other. You could say at 22 that future events are still “fuzzy” and the next few years will shape what those events will look like. Sometimes these events directly compete with each other, for example deciding between a graduate degree or entering the labor force. Other times, one life event takes precedence over something else; finding a full-time job before moving from shared flat to a private one for instance. Finally, some events might boost the likelihood of other events occurring soon. Any married couple can tell you on their wedding day how many aunts and uncles asked them about when the first little one is on their way. Sociologists and demographers study the regularity of these competing and complimentary events to see what impact changes in the timing and occurrence have on larger macro-societal features like the birth rate.

My dissertation project examines the role that employment, or more precisely the uncertainty surrounding employment, has on having children. This project has significance to me personally. I finished my undergraduate degree in the US in 2010, the height of the Great Recession. At the time, friends who specialized in fields like IT, law, or business struggled to find an entry-level job. I knew of at least two friends with master’s in teaching who spent years as part-time baristas before finding an open position. I myself fled to a life of adventure in South America, taking odd jobs and teaching English to get by, focusing more on travelling than a career. Now back in graduate school, I see the opportunities I had more clearly but also those I missed out on. I regret none of my choices, but I must admit, it didn’t get me any closer to having children. The times have changed. Now the headlines are full of employee shortages. However, I cannot help to wonder if these years waiting to find a stable job or getting on the right career path are connected to headlines about plummeting birth rates.

While it is certainly plausible long-term trends (e.g. people spend more time in education) and short-term shocks (the aforementioned recession) might delay family formation, we don’t know for sure if it negatively impacts completed family size. Therefore, in fertility and family studies we are interested in both the tempo (the timing of the births) and the quantum (the total number of children an individual has). There are indications that both are changing. The age at first birth is getting later and the birth rate in many countries continue to fall. However, the mechanism behind these changes still elude us. Studying either one requires massive, long and detailed datasets. We want to capture the moments when individuals leave school, enter the labor force, get married, have their first child (or don’t) and settle into their post-reproductive life. We want to see when does the idea of having a child stops being “fuzzy”. I hope to add some pieces to the puzzle of the complicated path from childhood to parenthood. (28.01.2022, Brian Matthew Buh)

ViDSS student Brian Matthew Buh is a member of the BIRTHLIFE project team at the Vienna Institute of Demography at the Austrian Academy of Sciences

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