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What Comes First: Marriage or Kids?

Extramarital childbearing, marriage and cohabitation in Iceland
Source: Halfpoint

In 2018, 70 per cent of children in Iceland were conceived outside of marriage - the highest rate of extramarital childbearing of the OECD countries. Icelandic cultural norms resemble that of other Nordic countries: relatively secular, highly individualised, and a high prevalence of cohabitation. Iceland is relatively gender egalitarian, though women still take more days of parental leave and are more likely to work part-time. At the same time, the overall marriage rate is on par with the OECD average. So is marriage declining in Iceland - or is the order of life course events, including marriage and childbirth, merely changing?

Patterns of extramarital childbearing in many European countries reflect a trend often referred to as the second demographic transition (SDT), which includes lower marriage rates, increasing numbers of premarital births, and a higher prevalence of nonmarital cohabitation. Such trends reflect the diversity of lifestyle choices available and a decline in traditional marriage norms. At the same time, critics of the second demographic transition theory refer to the Nordic countries, where they have observed relatively high gender egalitarianism as well as increasing marriage rates, leading them to conclude that more traditional family patterns can again stabilise in the context of increased gender equality.

With this context in mind, Ari Klængur Jónsson of the Stockholm University Demography Unit (SUDA) sought to explore the order in which people in Iceland build families: when they cohabitate, when they marry (if they marry), and when they have children. Jónsson used administrative population register data covering the entire marital and childbearing history of the female population of Iceland during the period 1994-2013. As the data stems from official registers, it only shows cohabitation for couples who officially register their cohabitant status (around three in four Icelandic cohabiting couples register their cohabitation). Although not granting the extent of rights that comes with marriage, registered cohabitation does come with certain rights and obligations.

The results of Jónsson’s analysis demonstrate a strong association between first registered cohabitation and first childbirth. This finding indicates that decisions to cohabitate come hand in hand with having a first child. Cohabitation was already common by the beginning of the 1994-2013 study period and did not significantly increase in prevalence over the two decades studied. However, the age by which 50 per cent of women had registered cohabitation increased by almost four years, from around age 24 to around age 28. While cohabitation remained common, marriage remained common as well - just later in life than cohabitation. Both overall marriage rates and the average age at marriage remained relatively stable over the two decades, with around 50 per cent of women marrying by age 34 and around 70 percent by age 46. That said, Jónsson observes evidence of postponement of marriage during the economic crisis period, 2008-2013.

Jónsson’s findings indicating the stability of marriage over time reflect the gender equality theory more than the SDT theory. Instead of cohabitation replacing marriage, marriage habits remained relatively stable, and cohabitation merely began occurring later in life instead of increasing. Cohabitation frequently revolves around the timing of childbirths, and high nonmarital childbirths indicate not a retreat from marriage, but rather that women often have children before marriage. In terms of policy takeaways, Jónsson concludes that registered cohabitation should be seen in relation to childbearing, providing a semi-regulated union status for prospective parents.

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Emily Frank