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“When grandparents contribute to childcare, the birth rate increases”

Aart Liefbroer, sociologist and researcher at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute;

Aart Liefbroer is a sociologist and researcher at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute. His research into fertility, family formation and social and demographic change has gained him recognition across Europe as an authority on the subject. One of his main focuses of analysis is the influence that family values have on demographic behaviour and the resulting impacts on people’s life course. This has led him to study the determinants and consequences arising from demographic events such as marriage, early parenthood or separation.


Your recent research has analysed the influence of family experiences on the start of adult life. This is what you call the intergenerational transmission of demographic behaviour.

Indeed. My interest in this area of study was sparked by the sensation I had that very little attention was being paid to family backgrounds in the analysis of demographic behaviour.

The conclusion of our research is that the intergenerational transmission of demographic behaviour takes place in different ways.

Firstly, it is frequently the case that parents try to transmit certain values to their children and, as a result, their children act in their adult life taking these values into consideration.

Something else that may happen is that children detect how their parents experience certain life events – the births of their younger siblings, marriage, divorce, etc. – and then in their adult life they modulate their behaviour on the basis of the attitudes that they observed in their parents when these events occurred.

And finally, it may turn out that the behaviour of children resembles that of their parents because their life circumstances are more or less similar. In this case we are talking about the intergenerational transmission of economic opportunities.

But other factors also exist that transcend the family sphere and determine whether or not this transmission of values and behaviours takes place...

Of course. Let’s imagine that children become more economically dependent upon their parents. This will probably strengthen the influence that their parents have on them. And the opposite is true. If people become more individualistic, which often occurs when independence on an economic level is achieved, it is easier for young adults to act in accordance with their own personality, instead of reproducing the behaviours of their parents.

In general, the intergenerational transmission of demographic behaviour becomes more limited as society becomes more individualistic. In contrast, it gets stronger if society’s economic situation deteriorates.

In some Western societies, there has been a major transformation of family structures in a relatively short time period. What are these changes in demographic behaviours indicating?

In my opinion, the number of children that a couple ultimately has is rarely strictly a question of obeying ideals. Frequently it is the result of a mixture of cultural reasons, economic issues and the social policies that are applied in each country (which often also have an economic undercurrent).

The economic situation is a relevant factor when analysing whether demographic patterns are repeated or not. Within a context of a lack of economic growth during a prolonged period, it is normal for the number of people who put off their decision to get married or have children to increase. But it is not the only determining factor.

In the case of the enormous reduction in the number of marriages in Spain, it is obvious that the crisis has an influence, but it also has to do with a profound change in the values of societies.

Previously, when a certain age was reached or at a certain point in a couple’s relationship, the natural step was to get married. But these days, young people ask themselves: “Should I get married?” or “What difference does it make?” is is clearly a cultural change.

If we analyse the medium- or long-term scenario, the probability of the children of these new generations getting married will be lower than in previous generations and they could also have fewer children. If your parents are not married, for you that is the normal situation. So, why would you get married?

Another situation that is now common in Spain is that it is the grandparents who are taking care of the children, during more hours than their parents themselves, who are working...

True. It is difficult to predict how this situation may afect the children. In the Netherlands our studies on the “sandwich generation” – adults who take care of their children and also of their elderly parents – indicate that when grandparents participate in the care of a firstborn child, the possibilities of the parents having a second child are much greater.

Children whose parents stayed together have more possibilities of having a long-lasting relationship themselves

In my country, many parents send their children to nurseries for just two days per week. The grandparents take care of them during another day or two. And we have observed that this helps contribute to an increase in the birth rate. We have not studied whether the same thing happens in countries such as Spain. But when it is difficult to access formal childcare due to financial problems, it will probably be easier to have more children if parents can resort to the help of the grandparents.

It is not an ideal situation. The best solution is for social policies to exist that help couples be able to strike a balance between family life and the professional life to which they aspire. But sometimes these policies cannot be implemented.

What are the implications for children’s development if they spend so much time with their grandparents?

I don’t know of any research that has tackled this situation, but undoubtedly it would be a fascinating subject for study.

In my opinion, it may well have positive consequences on the children’s development: firstly, they will have a richer vocabulary, because each generation has its own way of expressing itself; and secondly, their life experiences will be strengthened. In today’s society it is very difficult for relationships to be established between elderly people and young people. It happens very infrequently. The family environment is the place where these types of encounters can be developed.

At the same time, I imagine that there may also be other consequences that the parents of the children do not want, because everyone wants to educate their children in their own way...

In your work you mention separation and parenthood at an early age as two patterns that are repeated between parents and children when forming families. Does the same happen with the opposite examples? In other words, do the children of parents who stayed together all their lives – whether happily or unhappily – or children born to older parents also repeat the same behaviours as their parents?

With respect to fertility, our research indicates that when parents have had a child at a relatively early age, there is an increased possibility of their children also becoming young parents. In contrast, if parents have had children at a later age, there is greater variation. This pattern is not repeated so often.

As for separation, the children of separated parents have a much higher probability of getting separated. And vice versa: children whose parents stayed together have more possibilities of having a long-lasting relationship themselves. One possible reason for this is that in their family home they have seen how complicated situations can be overcome.

A study in the Netherlands shows that the probability of separating increases by around 25% among the children of separated parents. And the probability of a couple getting separated is 45% higher if the parents of both partners also got separated. In other words, it is not only the experiences of one partner that matter, but the accumulation of experiences within the couple.

The increase in separations among the lower classes is increasing the inequality gap in societies

According to some studies, separation has become a more common phenomenon among the lower classes, whereas previously it was more frequent among the higher classes.

In the past, separation was more common among people born of high-class marriages because they were the only people who had the financial resources to deal with it.

But these days it is more likely for lower-class couples to separate. There are various possible reasons that explain this phenomenon.

First of all, the children of high-class families have a better education and, consequently, better skills for negotiating with their partner or for dealing rationally with any conflicts that may arise. In contrast, for those people with less access to education, it is more diffcult to acquire the skills needed to deal with con icts within the relationship and reach an understanding.

Secondly, in some countries economic subsidies exist for single-parent families that may contribute towards people from lower classes choosing to get divorced.

But even so, separation makes both partners poorer. So if they increase among lower-class families, won’t inequalities in society also increase?

Yes, absolutely. People originating from a lower social level usually have low incomes. If they also repeat certain demographic patterns common in these families, such as having children at an early age, then the situation may lead to a relative continuation of a lack of resources. And if all of this is combined with the couple separating, their economy worsens even further.

There are couples who, even though they no longer get on well, choose to remain together instead of separating. What effect can this have on children’s development?

We know that the children of separated parents end up having more diffculties than children of parents who stay together. But if the parents are incapable of creating a healthy atmosphere in the home, it is equally damaging for the children.

It is clear that conflictive family environments that may even involve domestic violence, condition children’s development in a negative way. The important thing is for children to grow up in a healthy and safe environment where they can develop strong bonds with both parents.

How might future family structures be affected by the social and demographic changes that we are currently seeing? For example, the feminist movements that are protesting about the salary gap between men and women?

With the increase in the educational level of women and their greater presence in the labour market, their role in the family is changing. They are gaining power, which is leading to more equitable relationships with their partners. My colleague Gøsta Esping-Andersen has observed that in the past there was a dominant traditional family model: the male was the main breadwinner and the woman took care of the home. In that context, couples’ relationships were fairly stable.

We are now heading towards a model where both partners share paid employment and in household chores there is a trend towards an increase in conditions of equality. This should also give rise to stable partnerships.

But our current predicament is that we are located somewhere between the two models that I have just described. And people do not really know how to manage within this context. Esping-Andersen’s idea is that in this situation of uncertainty, when theory and practice do not coincide, relationships are much more unstable. And this may lead to higher separation rates and a decline in the birth rate.

Moreover, if both partners have equivalent power within the relationship and do not depend too deeply on each other, it is also easier for them to put an end to the relationship if it does not work out in line with their expectations. Again this may be a good thing, but it also increases the risk that some people may give up on the relationship too soon without truly trying to make it work.


Interview by Juan Manuel García Campos



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