Cohort change in family life course complexity of adults and children

Publication type

Book Chapter

Series Number

No. 10


The demography of transforming families



Publication date

August 24, 2023


This chapter addresses how family complexity evolved over the life course of adults in the United Kingdom, how it varied by birth cohort, gender, and parenthood status, and most importantly, how it varied across the early life courses of children by birth cohort. Although research on the complexity of family lives is motivated by its potential consequences for children, few studies have assessed to what extent children have been exposed to increased family complexity.

We used rich retrospective UKHLS and BHPS data to reconstruct the family histories of adults born across the twentieth century and calculate life course complexity. We then transposed parents’ family sequences to reflect what their children experienced in their first 16 years of life. Our methodological approach provides a broader and more dynamic measure for children’s family life complexity compared to measures used in previous studies, such as a simple count of household transitions.

We found an overall increase in life course family complexity over cohorts. Mothers had the most complex family life courses, followed by fathers, childless women and, lastly, childless men. However, differences between parents and childless adults converged across cohorts. By changing the perspective from parents to children, we revealed that children’s family complexity increased dramatically across birth cohorts. The two most recent cohorts of children experienced a considerably higher number of family transitions and greater family unpredictability at young ages compared to older cohorts. We provide conceptual and methodological contributions to spur future research on the consequences of increasing family complexity for children.




© 2023 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

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