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“Diverging Destinies” as Part of the Second Demographic Transition

The concept of diverging destinies emerges from a large body of research documenting growing socioeconomic differentials in family behavior over the past 30-40 years in the U.S. Family scholars have repeatedly demonstrated that men and women at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are increasingly engaging in family behavior that differs from that of their counterparts at the upper end of the spectrum (see Cherlin 2010 for a summary of this research). Bifurcation in family behavior includes an increasing concentration of union formation and childbearing at relatively young ages, childbearing that occurs outside of marriage or cohabiting unions, and unintended fertility among men and women with lower levels of educational attainment (Ellwood and Jencks 2004; England et al. 2012; Kennedy and Bumpass 2010; Musick et al. 2009; Upchurch et al. 2002). In addition to early (often unplanned) family formation, lower education is also now associated with a higher likelihood of never marrying in the U.S. (Goldstein and Kenney 2011). Within families, highly educated mothers are more likely to be stably employed across the life course (McLanahan and Jacobsen 2015). Marital dissolution is another example of differential change, with evidence of stable or declining divorce rates among highly educated couples and increasingly fragile unions, and associated growth in multi-partner fertility, among the less educated (Cherlin 2009; Martin 2006; Raley and Bumpass 2003; Tach et al. 2011). Most of the research on diverging destinies has focused on growing differences between women with a four-year college degree or more and women who completed high school or less education, but attention is also increasingly being paid to “moderately-educated” Americans (those who have completed some college). Several studies show that men and women in this group are increasingly moving away from their counterparts with a college degree and more closely resembling those with less education (Cherlin 2011; McLanahan and Jacobsen 2015).

A good deal of research on low-SES families in the U.S. focuses on the distinctive features of “fragile families.” These are families formed as a result of nonmarital childbearing and characterized by subsequent instability in parental relationships and family structure (Kalil and Ryan 2010; Osborne and McLanahan 2007). Births to unmarried mothers are common in the U.S., with 36 % of children born to unmarried mothers in 2013. The prevalence of such families differs markedly by race (29 % for whites vs. 68 % for blacks) and by educational attainment (57 % for those who did not complete high school vs. 9 % for those with a college degree) (Shattuck and Kreider 2013). Many of the important contributions to this research are based on data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study—a multisite study of a large sample of births to urban mothers in 1998-2000. By following children and their mothers from birth through age nine, these data have allowed researchers to describe family experiences across the socioeconomic spectrum.

While efforts to document growing family differentials are most prominent in the U.S., a similar pattern of change is visible in many low-fertility societies. The claim that socioeconomic bifurcation is a universal feature of family change associated with the second demographic transition was made initially, and perhaps most compellingly, by McLanahan (2004) who used data from the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) to show that young mothers, single mothers, and nonemployed mothers are more prevalent at lower levels of education in the U.S., Canada, and several Western European countries. The results of other cross-national analyses of educational differences in family behavior are generally consistent with the claim that diverging destinies is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Several studies provide evidence of growing socioeconomic differences in union formation (Kalmijn 2013; Raymo et al. 2015; Rendall et al. 2010), childbearing within cohabiting unions (Perelli-Harris et al. 2010), family structure (Heuveline and Weinshenker 2008), female labor force participation (Steider et al. 2016), and union dissolution (Harkonen and Dronkers 2006; Matysiak et al. 2014). We describe this cross-national evidence in greater detail below.

This empirical evidence of widespread socioeconomic bifurcation in family behavior is compelling given strong reasons to expect that patterns of family change should be shaped by context. For example, we might expect limited family bifurcation in societies characterized by low levels of economic inequality, given the strong reciprocal linkages between family behavior and aggregate levels of inequality (McLanahan and Percheski 2008). Similarly, we might expect to see less family bifurcation in relatively gender-inegalitarian settings where women’s life course outcomes are not strongly shaped by their own educational attainment and where the family life course has been relatively homogeneous (Kalmijn 2013). The fact that we see growing socioeconomic differentials in union dissolution in countries with low levels of income inequality like Sweden (e.g., Kennedy and Thomson 2010) is compelling evidence of the broad relevance of family bifurcation. The fact that existing research on diverging destinies has paid relatively little attention to countries where gender roles remain highly asymmetric and the family life course has been characterized by little variation (Brinton 1992) makes our focus on Japan a potentially important source of contextual insight. We develop these ideas in greater detail toward the end of this chapter.

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