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Inequality, early adult life courses and economic outcomes at mid-life in comparative context (EQUALLIVES)


Major shifts in early-adult life courses have occurred across developed societies over recent decades (Bynner, 2005; Buchmann and Kriesi, 2011; Furstenberg, 2010). Inter-linked changes in education, labour markets and family trajectories accumulate to set group differences in (dis)advantage over the life course.

This project is one of 13 concurrent transnational research projects funded by NORFACE to investigate the “Dynamics of Inequality Across the Life-course” (DIAL). The researchers adopt a holistic approach to analyse how education, labour market and family choices interact to structure accumulated advantage and disadvantage. Using panel data from five EU countries for over 20 years and cutting-edge statistical methods, including multichannel sequence analysis, they will use a comparative framework to explore how cross-country economic and institutional differences affect inequality outcomes and life courses.

Project aims

Following young adults as they transition from full-time education to the labour market, pursue careers and establish families – or become early school leavers and transition into unemployment or early parenthood - this project examines how educational, demographic and labour market choices are influenced, and constrained by, structural features of countries, and how these in turn affect economic trajectories into middle adulthood.

The key research questions addressed are:

1) Transition into early adulthood: How do the pathways that young people follow into adulthood vary across countries, and how do structural differences between countries affect these pathways?

2) Transition into midlife: What are the consequences of following particular pathways in early adulthood? In particular, how do decisions taken in early adulthood accumulate to influence economic outcomes at midlife, and how important are structural differences in ameliorating or exacerbating inequalities?

3) Intergenerational inequality: How important is family background to (1) and (2), and how do structural differences between countries influence the persistence of inequalities across generations?

4) What are the implications of 1) to 3) for overall levels of inequality in different country contexts?


The project will look at Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, which exhibit systematic structural and policy differences, but also share sufficient similarities for policy inferences to be drawn. The research will combine sequence analysis, which has only recently begun to be applied to social science problems, with matching and regression based techniques to explore the processes behind growing inequalities and the mediating role of institutions and policy.

The research consists of four related steps.

  • The first stage involves charting countries’ policy and structural conditions, and identifying country specific holistic patterns which describe early adult life course transitions. The information is then mapped together to examine how country conditions influence these profiles.

  • The second stage of the analysis links the analysis from the first stage to outcomes in later life. In particular, the researchers examine how structural features and life course trajectories interact to influence (i) labour market outcomes, and (ii) income, poverty risks and wealth inequality.

  • The third stage extends this analysis to look at the role of family background in influencing later life outcomes, in particular examining how family background reinforces or mitigates the persistence of economic advantage or disadvantage across generations and the importance of structural conditions.

  • The fourth stage brings together the results from the previous stages to assess the implications for overall levels of poverty and inequality.

Team members

Professor Susan Harkness

Associate Director for Policy - ISER, University of Essex

Professor Jani Erola

Professor of Sociology - University of Turku

Prof. Dr. Anette Eva Fasang

Professor of Mico-Sociology - Humboldt Universität zu Berlin

Professor Mads Meier Jæger

Professor of Sociology - University of Copenhagen

Dr. Thomas Leopold

Associate Professor of Sociology - University of Amsterdam


Photo credit: Anthony Cullen