Non-marital childbearing became hugely common during the educational expansion – The solution to the puzzle

Christine Schnor & Marika Jalovaara

INVEST Blog 4/2019

Highly educated parents tend to marry before they have children. Nevertheless, non-marital childbearing became hugely common during the educational expansion. What is the link? In this blog we give the answer based our new study published in Acta Sociologica.

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Why is it important to study whether children are born to married or unmarried parents?

Non-marital childbearing does not usually mean that mothers were without a partner at the time their child was born; it simply means that they were not married. Some children are born to single mothers, but most children born to unmarried mothers have parents who live together as a cohabiting couple.

Having children without being married has become commonplace and widely accepted in Western societies. However, partnership break-up is still much more common when parents are not married. As a result, children born to unmarried parents are much more likely to live in single-parent families. Many single-parent families are doing fine, but at population level, the risk of poverty, for instance, is much higher in single-parent families than in two-parent families.

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The puzzle

Many studies show that low educated women and men are especially likely to have their children outside marriage, whereas highly educated persons tend to marry before childbirth (Europe: Perelli-Harris et al., 2010; Sobotka, 2008; United States: Carlson et al., 2013; Finland: Jalovaara and Andersson, 2018; ). In the past decades, the average level of education has increased, and the proportion of low educated people has sharply declined in all Western countries. Paradoxically, these countries have seen at the same time a substantial increase in non-marital childbearing.

How could these trends go together?  Using high quality Finnish register data, covering childbirth cohorts from 1970–2009, let us identify the missing piece to solve the puzzle.

Non-marital childbearing increased in Europe

Non-marital childbearing has increased strongly in most European countries. The rise in non-marital births is mainly because parents increasingly live together without being married, not because of increases in the number of births to single mothers (Kiernan, 2001). The Nordic countries were forerunners in this development (Figure 1). In the 1970s and 1980s, they stood out in European comparison with their high levels. More recently, the levels in many other countries have risen equally high or even higher. In Finland, the proportion of non-marital births has been smaller than in the other Nordic countries. This likely reflects that views on marriage have been more conservative than in the other Nordic countries. In their study on changes in divorce legislation, Nordic historical demographers have characterised Finland as “the conservative laggard” in the Nordic context (Sandström & Garðarsdóttir 2018), and the comparably low rates of non-marital childbearing could be seen as another case of this.

Figure 1. Source: Eurostat.

Strong increases in childbearing outside marriage since the 1970s

Still in the 1960s’ Finland, the great majority of people had their children within marriage. The proportion of children born outside marriage remained near 5 percent (see dark blue line, Figure 2). Non-marital childbearing increased especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, about 45 percent of all births in Finland are to unmarried parents.

The percentages are even higher when we consider first children (because some parents marry after the birth of the first child). In the 1970s, the great majority of first births were to married parents, but since the mid-1990s, the majority of first children were born to mothers who were not married. Since 2015, the percentage has been above 57 percent. The trend was almost identical for mothers and fathers. Any slight differences between them in earlier decades may reflect the incomplete registration of unmarried fathers.

Changes in social values and attitudes, and structural changes have contributed to the tremendous increase in childbirths outside marriage. Social values and attitudes shifted and childbearing outside marriage became socially acceptable. Over time, developments such as urbanisation, increase in paid work, and high unemployment rates particularly among men have diminished the social and economic significance of marriage.

Figure 2. Source: Pitkänen & Jalovaara (2007) (to 2005); Statistics Finland, Vital Statistics (from 2006 onwards).

Non-marital childbearing most common among parents with low education – also in Finland

Figure 3 shows the proportion of non-marital first-time childbearing by level of mother’s and father’s education. Non-marital childbearing increased substantially for parents in all educational categories (see box for our definition of educational level). Nevertheless, the proportions vary substantially by the parent’s education level and is highest for parents with only basic education and lowest for parents with upper tertiary-level education (= e.g., master’s degree).

However, Figure 3 also shows that since the 1990s, more than half of the children of medium educated parents are born outside marriage. Furthermore, there are behavioural differences among tertiary educated parents: parents with a lower-tertiary education had in recent decades much more often a first child outside marriage than parents with upper-tertiary education.

Figure 3. Source: Register data from Statistics Finland.

Since the 1980s, medium educated has been the largest educational segment

In many countries, medium educated people have in recent periods formed the largest segment of the population. Since the 1980s, this is also the case for first-time mothers and fathers in Finland (see Figure 4). The proportion of parents with only basic education decreased substantially. More and more parents, especially mothers, have a tertiary degree. Among mothers of children born in the new millennium, almost half had completed either lower or higher tertiary level education. This relates to the general increase of educational attainment level, which has been stronger among women.

Figure 4. Source: Register data from Statistics Finland.
We distinguish four levels of education: Low (basic) education corresponds to about nine years or less in the educational system. Medium education lasts 11–12 years and includes the matriculation examination (i.e., the final examination at the end of general upper secondary school to qualify for entry into higher education) and vocational qualifications obtained 1–3 years after basic education. Lower tertiary education comprises tertiary education, which takes either about 2–3 years or 3-4 years to complete. It covers polytechnic degrees (vocational college) and university bachelor’s degrees (ISCED 6). Upper tertiary education takes about 5–6 years to complete after secondary education and leads to master’s degrees from university or equivalent (or higher) educational degrees. We distinguished between lower and upper tertiary education because the tertiary-educated segment has become large and may be heterogeneous. Lower tertiary education is characterised by a more vocational emphasis and somewhat weaker labour market prospects.

The missing piece of the puzzle

We wanted to solve the puzzle, how the increase in non-marital childbearing relates to educational expansion, as childbearing outside marriage has been more common among the low educated. We evaluated how parents with different level of education contributed to this increase. We took into account changes in the parents’ educational profile and changes in marriage behaviour. Group size proves to be a key element in the contribution of educational segment to the increase in non-marital childbearing, but changing behaviour appears equally important.

Figure 5 displays the increase in %-points in non-marital childbearing across the decades (left) and how the educational segments contributed to it (right). Our analysis reveals that the overall increase in non-marital childbearing is mainly attributable to increases in non-marital childbearing rates in the medium educated population. Among mothers, the lower tertiary-educated were almost as significant in this regard. While the highest proportion of non-marital first-time childbearing was still among the low-educated, their overall contribution was small or even negative due to diminishing group size (see notes under Figure 5 for explanation). The upper tertiary-educated contribution to non-marital childbearing remained relatively low. However, if lower- and upper tertiary-educated women are taken together (as in most studies), they account for approximately half of the increase in non-marital childbearing in recent decades. Fathers are most commonly medium-educated, and this group contributed most to the increase in non-marital childbearing among fathers.

In other words, the lowest educated could not drive the change, since their numbers decreased, nor could those with the highest education, since most of them still marry before they have children. The answer was in the middle: among secondary educated men and women, and women with lower tertiary degrees.

Figure 5; Source: Register data from Statistics Finland.
Notes: To ease interpretation of Figure 5, let us take the increase from the 1970s to the 1980s, which was 10.6 percentage points for mothers (Figure 5, left). Medium educated mothers contributed with 8 percentage points the most important part to this increase (Figure 5, right). Lower-tertiary contributed another 2.4 percentage points. The contribution of upper tertiary educated mothers was small with 0.4 percentage points. Low-educated women made with -0.4 even a negative contribution, which means that they actually slowed down the increase. How can this be?  Low-educated women had increasingly often a child outside marriage. If their group size had remained the same, they would have made a large contribution to the upward trend in non-marital childbearing. However, the group of low educated shrank so considerably in size that the shrinking cancelled out any contribution. Low-educated mothers contributed very little (0.7) to the increase in the 1990s and again slowed the increase in the 2000s (-0.9).

How educational expansion links to the rise in non-marital childbearing

During the educational expansion, the ideational climate changed, making childbearing outside marriage socially acceptable. The largest increase in non-marital first childbearing occurred from the 1980s to the 1990s. At the same time, many countries underwent an economic recession. In Finland, the recession led to a significant temporary drop in employment rates that affected the low and medium-educated in particular, as well as the lower tertiary-educated. Economic constraints can act as a barrier more to marriage than to childbearing. The experience of uncertainty and loss of opportunity may have led the medium and lower tertiary-educated to favour unmarried cohabitation or to postpone marriage.

In adopting a descriptive approach, we offer no proof of any causal relationships between expansion of educational attainment and non-marital childbearing. Nevertheless, our results complement existing work by providing the missing link between individual behaviour and macro family trends.

Medium educated are the silent giant

Medium educated are quantitatively important and may impact population trends, but research has not paid much attention to the medium educated, because the focus laid on comparing the highest and lowest educated. It remains important to investigate the living situation of low educated parents, because they accumulate different disadvantages. Low educated parents already have fewer economic resources. As they tend to form families outside marriage, they run a higher risk of ending up in a single-family, which tends to accentuate their economically difficult situation (McLanahan, 2004; McLanahan & Jacobsen, 2015 ).

At the same time, however, we need to consider the different contexts in which the majority of the children live. Non-marital childbearing has become common among the medium- and highly educated. We should be sensitive to the implications that this change may bring for family instability and its consequences for social and economic inequalities.

It is also useful to take account of the diversity in tertiary education, as the lower tertiary-educated are a growing category (especially among women), and their family patterns differ from those of the upper tertiary-educated.

Author biographies

Christine Schnor is a professor of Demography at the Centre for Demographic Research at UCLouvain.

Marika Jalovaara, docent, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Social Research, University of Turku, the PI of the project ‘Falling Fertility and the Inequalities Involved’ (NEFER) and a CoPI in the ‘The Inequalities, Interventions, and New Welfare State’ (INVEST) Flagship.


Carlson MJ, VanOrman AG and Pilkauskas NV (2013) Examining the antecedents of U.S. nonmarital fatherhood. Demography 50(4): 1421–47.

Jalovaara M and Andersson G (2018) Disparities in children’s family experiences by mother’s socioeconomic status: The case of Finland. Population Research and Policy Review 1–18.

Kiernan K (2001) European perspectives on nonmarital childbearing. In: L.Wu & B. Wolfe (eds.), Out of Wedlock: Causes and Consequences of Non-marital Fertility. New York: Russell Sage Foundation: 77–108.

McLanahan S and Jacobsen W (2015) Diverging destinies revisited. In: Amato, Paul. R, Booth, Alan Booth, Susan M. McHale, Jennifer Van Hook (eds.): Families in an Era of Increasing Inequality: Diverging Destinies. Springer International Publishing: 3–23.

McLanahan S (2004) Diverging destinies: How children are faring under the second demographic transition. Demography 41(4): 607–627.

Perelli-Harris B, Lappegård T, Keizer R and Berghammer C (2010) The educational gradient of childbearing within cohabitation in Europe. Population and Development Review 36(4): 775–801.

Sandström Glenn & Garðarsdóttir, Ólöf (2018). Long-Term Perspectives on Divorce in the Nordic Countries: Introduction. Scandinavian Journal of History, 43, (1) :1–17.

Sobotka T (2008) Overview chapter 6: The diverse faces of the second demographic transition in Europe. Demographic Research 19(8): 171–224.

The authors thank Patricia McMullin for her comments. The research was funded by the Academy of Finland (decisions 275030, 321264, and 320162).


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