The effect of mothers' education on childbearing in marriage or cohabitation - economic independence versus status attainment

Alexander Mack, GESIS - Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences

The finding that mothers' education is negatively associated with the likelihood of a birth in cohabitation (Perelli-Harris et al. 2010) is likely the most central on this topic in the last decade. And while research has found that the size of the educational gradient of childbearing in cohabitation differs between countries (Goldstein and Kenney 2012, Potarca et al. 2013) there exists little research on the magnitude of this difference or the underlying mechanisms. In my paper I argue that the effect of women’s education on likelihood of a birth in cohabitation versus marriage is dependent on whether mothers can utilize their education in the labor market. In reference to Oppenheimer (1994) I argue that mother’s education can have both positive and negative effects on likelihood of marriage. Building on arguments laid out by Cherlin (2004) and Edin and Kefalas (2005) I expect a negative “status attainment” effect of education on childbearing in cohabitation. On the other hand new home economics (Becker 1991) would predict a positive independence effect of education. I apply these arguments to parents’ marital status at time point of birth and argue that independence effects are more pronounced when mothers can combine work and family and benefit from their education. I argue that this association is mediated by the degree of compatibility of work and family life (operationalized via childcare availability at the country level). In order to test these assumptions I employ cross-sectional data from the EU-SILC for 26 European countries and estimate multi-level models with cross-level interaction terms. I observe that higher levels of education are generally associated with lower likelihood of living in a cohabiting versus marital union at time of birth; however the degree of this educational gradient varies considerably between countries. Childcare availability mediates this effect particularly for mothers with tertiary education.

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Presented in Session 31: Cohabitation versus marriage