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The mother of all problems?

More social support for families with young parents could help in offsetting long-term disadvantages.
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Can the disadvantages that often accompany becoming a young parent be minimised? Professor Emily Grundy of LSE's Department of Social Policy studied the effects of early parenthood over the course of people’s lives in two different types of society, finding differences between Eastern and Western European countries in life chances and health in later life.

Young parenthood, defined as having a first child before the age of 20 for women and 23 for men, has long been viewed as a social problem.

In many western countries, teenage parents face negative media portrayals and social prejudice, which may lead to lower self-esteem at the time of pregnancy and through parenthood. Additionally, young parenthood may have negative effects on training prospects, educational attainment and career progression.

A new study by Professor Emily Grundy looked at whether early parenthood is linked to poorer health and economic prospects in the longer term, by comparing two different types of society which have contrasting approaches to teenage pregnancy.

The study compared the health outcomes of young parents from Eastern European countries with their counterparts in Western European countries.

In the context of young parenthood, societies in Eastern Europe, in the Soviet era, were different from Western Europe in two important ways. Firstly, early parenthood in Eastern Europe does not carry the same social stigma that it tends to have in Western countries, as it was much more common. Secondly, Soviet countries had pro-natalist policies and tended to put greater investment into state resources available to families. This meant that relative to Western Europe, socio-economic differences, usually described as levels of inequality, were smaller and young parents in particular suffered fewer relative disadvantages.

Professor Grundy and her co-author Ms Else Foverskov studied data for people born between 1923 and 1961 in 11 countries. Five countries— Belgium, France, West Germany, Netherlands, Norway — were analysed to represent the Western Europe, while six countries — Bulgaria, Georgia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Russia — were selected to represent Eastern Europe.

Results showed that in Western European countries there was a much stronger association between young parenthood and poor health later in life (between 50 and 80), than in Eastern European countries. Similarly in Western Europe, early parenthood was linked to lower socio-economic status and to risks of divorce to a much  greater extent than in Eastern Europe.  

Professor Grundy said: “In Western Europe, young mothers are more than twice as likely to get divorced. Young parents are also less likely to have a white collar occupation in Western Europe compared with Eastern Europe.”

One of the interesting questions these findings raised for Professor Grundy is whether early parenthood is always inherently problematic, or whether the disadvantages are due to the social context. She said: “Early parenthood was not as negatively stigmatised in Eastern European countries, whereas for a long time teenage parenthood has been regarded as a problem behaviour in Western Europe.”

“Another difference is the high levels of state support for families that existed in Eastern European countries, which helped younger parents over the course of their children’s lives.”

Professor Grundy adds: “The lessons from this study could be that more social support for families with young parents could help in offsetting long-term disadvantages, both for the parents, their children, and for society."

"In practice that is very difficult, as most countries do not want to encourage early child bearing. This is partly because for many people further education has been extended into early adulthood.”

Professor Grundy cites another study where higher levels of social and economic support available to young parents in capitalist societies has been shown to have positive effects. “Our study mirrors findings in a different study from Norway. I found that a strong support system in place for parents has meant that the social and economic disadvantages that may arise for young parents have been offset, to a degree, through government support.”

“Most importantly, this study shows that while state support is important in improving quality of life at the time of birth for parents and children, it may also have long term benefits in many other areas of the individuals lives.”

Behind the article

Age at first birth and later life health in Western and Eastern Europe by Professor Emily Grundy and Else Foverskov (2016) was published in Population and Development Review, 42 (2). 245-269. ISSN 0098-7921