New Approach to Population and Family Demography | Carlsbergfondet
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New Approach to Population and Family Demography

Postdoc-stipendium i Danmark | 03/06/2016

The size and composition of our population is the prime driver in shaping our society. To understand past and present linkages of how societies change and families are formed is therefore imperative to guide us towards the best possible future.
By PhD Lisbeth Trille G. Loft, University of Copenhagen

Danish Family Formation Pathways: Changes across Cohorts and Generations

The size and composition of our population is the prime driver in shaping our society. To understand past and present linkages of how societies change and families are formed is therefore imperative to guide us towards the best possible future. The ways in which we form families today differ significantly from earlier generations. Today we have fewer children, we have them later in life, we are not necessarily married when our children are born, and it is far from a given to grow up with both biological parents in one household. The question is, how did these changes come about? And what are the challenges and benefits to this? These questions are the point of departure for this research project in which Dr. Lisbeth Trille G. Loft develops a new approach to population studies and family demography. This fundamental research is based on a set of novel theoretical ideas and applied investigations using rare and unique quantitative data. The project investigates how social, economic, and institutional factors jointly shape the kind of families we form and how it can influence our children’s outcomes. It documents that, in addition to family formation being closely intertwined with societal conditions and personal circumstances for education and employment, familial history across multiple generations too plays a key role. Something research so far has been unable to account for. 

Figure 1: The ways in which we form families today differs from earlier times. Picture credit: Lisbeth Trille G. Loft

New Patterns of Family Life

Over the course of the 20th century, the social norms associated with forming a family have undergone considerable changes. These changes are reflected in new patterns of the timing and sequencing of important family life decisions. For example, Dr. Loft explains:

“We often postpone to get married or to have our first child. When we decide to have children we also no longer need or want to get married first, and more of us experience having children with two or more partners throughout our lifetime.”

So far, research has explained these new patterns of family life by pointing to the fact that we live longer and that gender relations in education and labour market participation have become more symmetrical. Whereas these insights are useful to explain why we today form families later and in new ways, – there is, so far, no clear and coherent account of how new ways of being a family influence the wellbeing of individual family members and thereby our society at large.

“In order to guide us to the best possible future for families and children we must renew the way we study families today. We need to adapt our theories and methods to the more dynamic and diverse reality of contemporary family life,” Dr. Loft clarifies. 

Although new patterns of family life are emerging, the family remains the primary context for our children to learn how to be caring family members as well as responsible individuals and productive members of society. Sociologists call this ‘social integration’. The fact that social integration begins within one’s family of origin is not well understood or incorporated into current research on populations. Dr. Loft’s research therefore aims to develop a new approach that comprehensively maps out the challenges and benefits of the large variation in family formation we see today while also incorporating both individual and family histories across birth cohorts and generations. 

Figure 2: Graph showing the historical increase average age of first-time mothers in Denmark. Source: Statistics Denmark, Table FOD11.

Family Formation as a Process

Whereas previous approaches to study how people form families have mainly looked at singular events such as getting married or having the first child. This project views forming a family as a longer and more comprehensive process than just getting married or having the first child together. That is, the project develops a new approach to population studies and family demography by considering family formation as a process that happens over a longer period of time. Key to this approach is what is called ‘a life course perspective’, Namely the way in which families are formed and evolved is embedded in the opportunities and constraints people’s experience during the years they mature as adults and start to form families. By viewing family formation in such a process-oriented perspective, we can map and compare the life courses of individuals and their family history.

Social Integration

Social integration is as a term used by sociologists to describe the process by which individuals learn to participate smaller groups as well as in society in a way that maintain positive, constructive, and healthy social relationships.

This is beneficial because it makes it possible to simultaneously examine personal circumstances and social, economic, and institutional changes over time. For example, the transformed opportunity-structure individuals have experienced over the course of the 20th century has not only changed the way we form families. It has, at the same time, led us to face increased educational requirements, higher expectations of social mobility in the labour market, and overall perceived prospects of a longer life.

Taking these new trends into account, the timing and sequencing of family life events in its traditional form of leaving home, getting married, and having children is no longer suitable for understanding the diversity of family types documented in recent decades. Instead, it is now more appropriate to view family formation as a non-linear process, and emphasise on the co-existence of various patterns family formation across birth cohorts and between generations. Dr. Loft recently explained to Politiken in an article about changes in family life[1] that:

“Today you can no longer mirror your own life after the way in which your parents or grandparents lived their lives. You cannot navigate life by the same type of experiences your parents had with regard to becoming adults and forming a family.”
Life Course Perspective

The life course perspective is a theoretical approach first proposed by Glen Elder. The key point is that an individual's own developmental pathway is embedded in the particular conditions and circumstances during the historical period and geographical location in which the person lives.

About Dr. Loft and Her Research

Lisbeth Trille G. Loft has a doctoral degree in sociology and populations studies from Brown University, USA. She also holds a PhD from the Department of Sociology at University of Copenhagen. In 2014, she received a six month Internationalisation Fellowship from the Carlsberg Foundation to go to Princeton University, USA and develop a new theoretical and statistical approach for studying family formation. When returning to the University of Copenhagen, she received an additional 18 month stipend to complete her research on Danish family formation pathways focusing on changes across cohorts and generations. Dr. Loft explains further:

“The support from the Carlsberg Foundation has not only been instrumental in promoting Danish family demographic research internationally. With regard to my own career development, it has enabled me to direct my own independent research and reinforced my belief in fundamental and innovative research that benefits our society. I am very grateful for the support from the Carlsberg Foundation as it led to the possibility for me to pursuse my own ideas. To be able to carry out my own independent project is an invaluable gift that has defined my career as a researcher.”
Dr. Loft’s successful research on a new approach to studying population and family demography has received international attention, and from July 2016 she will move to Columbia University in New York, USA for two years in order to begin her new study on different types of family environments and the potential role genetic sensitivity in health outcomes when experiencing turbulent family contexts. This new research project will be supported by the European Commission’s prestigious Marie Curie Global Fellowship.


[1] Politiken. 19. juli 2015. ”Børn kan ikke længere spejle sig i forældrenes eller bedste forældrenes liv” af journalist Kirsten Nilsson.