How parental background is connected with children’s pathways into adult life

OutiSirnio Photo Maarit Kytöharju
Outi Sirniö. Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

Author: Outi Sirniö Labor market integration and family formation patterns are considered the key life events in the transition to adulthood. In our recent study, we show that not only single events during early adulthood, but also life courses as a whole are differentiated by childhood living conditions. Children brought up in families with high level of socioeconomic resources follow more successful pathways to adulthood compared to the pathways of those with fewer such resources. Educational choices strongly shape the patterns of other life paths and events in early adulthood. Although young adults today have plenty of possibilities to plan their own lives, the underlying patterns and factors driving the process of the transition to adulthood seem to still be rather structured.

In our recent study, we used register-based data on Finnish men and women born in the early 1970s. We followed these individuals from age 16 until the age of 37 by annually measuring their labor market participation and family formation patterns. By using multichannel sequence analyses, we created a pathway typology of most prevalent combinations of these patterns. Sequence analysis is an increasingly used method to establish common patterns of the life course, and a typology is created by sorting similar pathways into groups. We also assessed whether belonging to different pathway groups was associated with parental resources. We concentrated on parental education, parental income, and structure of the family of origin, as these resources reflect economic, cultural, and social conditions during childhood.

The transition to adulthood includes several parallel processes such as family and employment trajectories, which occur within a relatively short time and influence each other. In our study, pathways to adulthood include information on education, employment, departure from the parental home, formation of a union, and entry into parenthood. The timing and ordering of different life-course events during early adulthood are interrelated because decisions concerning each event are made simultaneously.

We distinguished six pathway types that show how different spheres of life are connected in young adults’ pathways to adulthood. The pathways show how education is strongly connected to other areas of life. For example, young adults who attain the highest level of education also tend to form unions and have children at older age and have less labor-market disruptions. In contrast, pathways of young adults reaching low education typically also co-evolve with single parenthood or living alone, instability in labor market participation and low-income jobs, and living with parents for a prolonged time. Gender plays a significant role: low-educated women usually follow pathways consisting of early parenthood and disruptions in union history, while men with a low level of education have higher tendency to drop out from the labor market and family formation spheres of life altogether.

The likelihood of following different pathways to adulthood is linked with parental background. Familial socioeconomic resources influence children’s actions and goals, as children of the most and the least affluent families have differing resources and capacities to navigate the transitions in early adulthood. In our study, we show that young adults with highly-educated parents are more likely to follow a pathway with higher educational attainment. Children of families with high education and income are also more likely to have typical or somewhat belated family formation timing. On the other hand, children from low-income families tend to follow pathways that include early parenthood and disruptions in employment and union history. Also single-parent family structure in childhood increased the likelihood of following socio-economically less successful pathways, having less typical family formation timing, and living alone.
The novel contribution of our study was to assess how childhood living conditions shape interconnected trajectories when growing up. To fully understand socioeconomic attainment and adult outcomes, future research should aim at explaining how parental background affects the development of young adults’ lives.


This blog post is based on the recently published article by Outi Sirniö, Timo M. Kauppinen and Pekka Martikainen: ”Intergenerational determinants of joint labor market and family formation pathways in early adulthood”, Advances in Life Course Research, Epub ahead of print.


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