Did family and working lives became more unstable in the 20th century?

New paper from Equal Lives’ Zachary Van Winkle and Anette Fasang shows place more important than time in unstable family and working lives

Across Europe the stability of people’s working and family lives largely stayed the same from generation to generation across the 20th century according to new research from Equal Lives. But the findings also show large differences between countries, indicating that place seems to matter more than time when it comes to living more complex and unstable lives.

Building on two earlier studies by doubling the number of countries looked at from 15 to 30 and including 10 more birth cohorts, Zachary Van Winkle and Anette Fasang’s research questions the often-made assumption that people’s lives have become more complicated and unstable than they were in the early part of the 20th century.

Although the research showed a small increase in complexity in people’s lives over time especially for the very youngest cohorts, the main increases were related to the country where people lived.

Explaining the background to the research, Zachary said:

Unstable life courses moving between different jobs and unemployment, or recurrently changing family situations are often thought to be detrimental for individuals and their family members. But moving between different jobs and family situations can also be seen as a hallmark of liberal societies, where individuals are free to choose and re-adjust life paths. Life courses have been found most stable and uniform in the regulative communist societies of Eastern Europe and the dictatorships in Southern Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. This can hardly be seen as an indication of a generally desirable life course outcome. Before answering questions about whether life course instability is associated with desirable or undesirable outcomes, we wanted in this work to establish whether life course instability has really increased over the past decades.

Like the first two studies, this research found little evidence that people’s work and family lives had become more unstable but where there were changes these were largely attributable to where people lived rather than when they were born.

Saying this, there was some indication that the lives of the youngest cohorts added into this study had become more complex. So between 1980 and 2000, when the 1960s cohorts were entering and establishing themselves in the labour market, there was an overall trend of increasing employment complexity that was noteworthy and expected, although Zachary commented:

We shouldn’t jump to conclusions about similar universal driving forces underlying this trend. It is possible that global economic developments and less employment security in many countries play a role in this increase.

Commenting on the implications of the findings, he said:

Disentangling the country contexts and the combined effects of different institutional policies and cultures on life course complexity cross-national comparisons certainly seem to help paint a more nuanced picture of what’s really been going on.