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Early Fertility Preferences: The Hidden Drivers of Union Formation and Its Timing

It is well known that fertility preferences affect childbearing behavior, but do they also steer other life outcomes, for example whether and when individuals form unions or marry? This project sets out to investigate such questions. We examine how fertility desires and other life preferences (such as for educational or occupational trajectories) expressed during adolescence impact the occurrence and timing of first co-residential union formation later in life. We also look at whether differences in union formation timing can help us understand why some people will achieve their desired number of children while others won’t.



While many studies have investigated how fertility preferences affect childbearing behavior, not much is known yet on whether and how early fertility desires may impact union formation over the subsequent life course. Surprisingly, the literature on childbearing preferences and behavior on the one side and union formation preferences and behavior on the other side have been separate to date. However, the formation of co-residential unions is an important precursor for the birth of children and the large majority of children are still born to co-residential couples today. It has been argued that union formation timing and the transition to parenthood may be jointly determined by preference structures, but little direct evidence testing this hypothesis exists. Drawing on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1979) and focusing on the US context, this project aims at closing these research gaps in three steps.


We will investigate how fertility desires early in life impact the occurrence and timing of first co-residential union formation/marriage later in life. Using discrete time event history modeling, we will look at this process for both men and women, and address how it may be mediated by education and parental background. Next, we will explore a larger array of early desires and expectations for life trajectories and look at how they relate to family formation behaviors. This project is expected to significantly contribute to the advancement of knowledge in family formation research. It will widen our understanding of how early life preferences affect life courses using cutting edge methodology. Furthermore, it will address all research questions for men and women, thereby significantly contributing to our knowledge on men’s life courses. This also allows us to study whether drivers of family formation affect men and women differently, a so far under-researched yet coming-up area of social demography.