What factors influence young adults’ decision to start a family?

/ Author: Miriam van der Sangen
Newborn baby
© ANP / Robin Utrecht
Young adults in the Netherlands face a variety of economic challenges: employers are giving out more temporary contracts, income growth is stagnating, students have to take on more debt, there’s an ongoing housing shortage and inflation is soaring. All this has put pressure on our young generation’s economic position. But does it also lead young adults to put their plans to start a family on hold? Daniël van Wijk, a researcher at the demographic institute NIDI, looked into this using register data from CBS’ System of Social Statistical Datasets. On 25 September, he defended his PhD thesis on this subject at the University of Groningen.

Likelihood of having a first child

In rich countries, the age at which people start a family continues to rise. ‘This postponement of parenthood is often explained by pointing to the poor economic position of young adults,’ says Van Wijk. ‘But much was still unknown about the relationship between economic factors and the birth of the first child. In my thesis, I investigated to what extent various economic factors affect the likelihood of having a first child. I also researched when these factors play a role and who they affect. Besides the Netherlands, I looked at seven other countries around the world.’

Register data

Van Wijk used register data on the entire Dutch population from CBS’ System of Social Statistical Datasets for his research. He selected all individuals who were between 15 and 30 years old on 1 January 2006 and who finished their education or left school without a diploma in 2006. He then tracked this group until 2018. ‘I was very happy with the quality of CBS’ register data. It’s an ideal resource – everyone’s included in the dataset and you can track individuals over a longer period of time. You don’t have to worry about your sample being too small. It also allows you to look at developments among certain groups, such as migrants, at a detailed level.’ Van Wijk also very much enjoyed working together with CBS. During his PhD research, he spent some of his time at CBS’ Demographic and Socioeconomic Statistics department. There he was able to discuss his research findings with CBS researchers, with whom he would also end up co-authoring a number of scientific papers. Van Wijk had access to CBS microdata as well.

Daniël van Wijk conducted PhD research using CBS statistics data on economic factors affecting having a first child among young adults
© Sjoerd van der Hucht

Daniël van Wijk is a researcher at NIDI and recently he received his PhD from the University of Groningen

Key conclusion

So what is the study’s key conclusion? ‘The main conclusion is that there is a strong correlation between people’s economic position and the monthly probability that they will have a first child,’ Van Wijk explains. ‘Both men and women want to have a job before starting a family – preferably a job with a permanent contract. They also want to have sufficient income. People with no steady job and insufficient income postpone or even put off having children. The same is true for men and women who have been unemployed in the past, and for individuals whose income used to be low. Moving forward, this means that the poor economic position of young people now may also cause a further rise of the age at which people become parents in the future.’ Van Wijk says his research makes it clear that there is a link between young adults’ financial struggles and delayed parenthood.

Most likely to become mothers

The newly minted doctor’s research further shows that women in permanent jobs are the most likely to become mothers. For men, the likelihood of having a first child is highest among those who are self-employed and those with permanent employment contracts. ‘Unemployed men and women are the least likely to become parents. Within this category of unemployed people, it’s mainly men and women in the most vulnerable economic positions – for example those on social benefits – who postpone parenthood. The level of income also plays an important role in the decision to have children. High-earning men are more likely to become fathers than their low-earning peers. Among women, the relationship between income and the likelihood of having a first child isn’t as clear. The study also shows that men and women who have been unemployed or on a low income in the past continue to be less likely to have a first child.’

Economic insecurity

Van Wijk concludes that, in the Netherlands, favourable objective economic factors such as employment, high income and a permanent contract lead to a higher likelihood to become parents. ‘In contrast, subjective perceptions of economic insecurity – such as anxiety about the chance of future unemployment – do not appear to affect the likelihood of having a first child.’

Comparison with other countries

In the first few chapters of his thesis, Van Wijk mainly discusses the situation in the Netherlands. In the final chapter, he shifts his focus to seven other rich countries, including the US, Australia and Germany. In these countries too, there appears to be a strong link between people’s income level and the monthly probability of having a first child, especially in the past decade. ‘This shows that earning sufficient income is an important condition for would-be parents not only in the Netherlands but also in other countries.’

Impact of housing crisis

Now that Van Wijk has finished his PhD, he will spend the coming year conducting new research for NIDI. ‘I’m going to explore how the housing crisis in the Netherlands is impacting the decision to start a family. CBS’ register data will be my main source again.’