Teen parenthood is often described as a mistake, a breach of Western social norms around family formation and life trajectories. Public discourse often treats teen parents as a homogeneous group that comes from disadvantaged family situations and inevitably faces poor future prospects. Research has indeed shown that on average, teen parents tend to come from lower-income and less-educated families. But what happens after teen childbirth? How do family structure and socioeconomic resources shape the timing and ordering of childbearing and (re)partnering events among teenage parents? Little is known overall about how teen parents’ family formation trajectories in adulthood are tied to their socioeconomic and family backgrounds.
Sara Kalucza, Anna Baranowska-Rataj, and Karina Nilsson of Umeå University and the Centre for Demographic and Ageing Research (CEDAR) looked at these questions for Sweden, where the prevalence of teen parenthood is especially low compared with other Western countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States. To investigate the connection between teen parents’ (childbirth between ages 15 and 19) family formation trajectories and the characteristics & resources of their families, they used population-level Swedish register data that follows six birth cohorts of individuals born between 1975 and 1980, from age 15 to 30. The authors looked at childbirth and partnering events as well as demographic and background characteristics of male and female teen parents. They considered factors such as whether the individual’s own mother was a teen parent, whether both parents were at home, parental income and education, number of siblings, and whether the individual came from an urban or a rural area.
In their analysis, the authors identified four family formation trajectories displayed by the teens subsequent to childbirth: traditional family patterns, where partnership trajectories are dominated by marriage; modern family patterns, where parents cohabitate but do not marry; single parenthood; and re-partnering patterns. Results revealed a considerable diversity in family formation trajectories across both male and female teen parents.
While patterns varied significantly based on demographic and family characteristics, some patterns emerged by gender. For male teen parents, family economic resources had the strongest association with family trajectories; for example, teenage fathers from more well-off families were more likely to re-partner and have more children or become single one-child fathers. That said, while family economic resources had the most pronounced associations with family formation patterns, other factors, such as number of siblings, also followed patterns. For women, on the other hand, origin family structure seemed to play a stronger role. Teenage mothers whose parents had re-partnered and had children were more likely to remain single mothers instead of following traditional family patterns. Teenage mothers raised by single parents were more likely to be single parents themselves or follow modern family patterns. By discovering several such associations, the authors indicate that for women, the family structures in which they are raised may have a stronger relationship to their own family structures in adulthood, while for men, their parents’ income was more significant.
The authors’ findings echo previous research demonstrating inter-generational transmission of family behaviour and the role of socioeconomic status in shaping likelihood of teen parenthood. However, their results also contradict conventional expectations about teen parents in several ways. For one matter, the heterogeneity in teen parents’ family formation patterns is in sharp contrast to the notion that having a child early in life boxes teens into particular life trajectories. Furthermore, the impact of background characteristics on family formation after teen childbirth differs by gender. The causes and implications of such gender differences represent an avenue for further research. Finally, Kalucza and colleagues’ findings indicate that policy measures designed to support teen parents should avoid assumptions and sweeping generalisations about their family formation patterns.