The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Sweden No Paradise for Young Adults

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

The progressive government of Sweden promises health and well-being, as well as economic security, to all. Yet a study by social scientists in Spain and Sweden finds not all is well in the socialist paradise. Documenting a “deterioration of psychological well-being” among young adults there—a decline related to increased rates of parental divorce—the study establishes that the link between parental divorce in childhood and psychological distress in adulthood remains as robust as it was forty years ago.

Using longitudinal data from two waves (1968 and 2000) of the Swedish Level of Living Survey, Michael Gähler and Anna Garriga compare the impact of parental divorce on the psychological adjustment of 19- to 34-years from two generations of Swedes (the first born between 1934 and 1949; the second between 1966 and 1981). Their findings put to rest the notion—widely advanced among progressive scholars—that as alternative family forms have become more prevalent and accepted, as they are in this European haven, the negative impact of parental divorce on children has faded.

Reviewing their descriptive findings, the researchers found that the occurrence of experiencing parental divorce or separation was four times more likely among the younger cohort of Swedes (21 percent) than the older cohort (5 percent). Likewise, while only one-fourth of the older cohort reported psychological distress as measured with six variables in 1968, nearly one-half (45 percent) of the younger cohort reported such distress in 2000. Stating the obvious, Gähler and Garriga note: “Psychological problems have increased substantially among young Swedes during recent decades.”

Using multivariate analysis, the researchers are able to place the blame for this increased angst squarely where it belongs. Controlling for gender, age, country of origin, and parental education, they established that among respondents of each generation, those who grew up in a broken home were more likely to suffer from emotional problems in adulthood than were peers from an intact family. In the older generation, the risk of emotional pathology ran twice as high among the adult children from broken homes as it did among peers from intact families. In the younger cohort, the relative risk of such pathology fell almost by half among the adult children of broken homes. However, despite this sharp fall in the relative risk, the correlation between family structure and emotional pathology remained statistically significant (p < 0.01) for both age cohorts.

Moreover, a pooled-data analysis revealed no statistically significant reduction in the magnitude of the negative parental-divorce impact on young adults between the generation of 2000 and that of 1968. As the two sociologists write: “Individuals whose parents divorced during the period 1966–1997 do not report a higher psychological well-being as 19- to 34-year-olds, compared to individuals from an intact family background, than do corresponding individuals whose parents divorced during the period 1934–1965.”

Identifying mediating factors, the researchers found that economic hardship and family dissension were each associated with psychological impairment in adulthood, regardless of family structure in childhood. Yet both were significantly more prevalent in childhood among respondents from broken homes than among those from married-parent households in both generations.

Though it may disappoint those who think government programs can level the playing field, the researchers found that the economic disparities between both family types did not lessen between 1968 and 2000, a period when the Swedish welfare system stepped up its income-redistribution efforts. To be sure, respondents from both family types reported less economic hardship in 2000, but the decline among respondents from intact families who reported economic hardship in childhood (from 13 percent to 8 percent) was relatively greater than the decline among respondents from non-intact families (from 31 percent to 21 percent).

Another irony: the social scientists found that reports of serious family dissension had increased among respondents from intact families between the two generations (from 8 percent to 11 percent) but decreased among their peers from a dissolved family (from 60 percent to 43 percent). The researchers explain this curious pattern by suggesting that a greater percentage of divorces a generation ago were initiated for more substantial reasons than is the case now and that divorcing parents do more today to shield their children from parental conflict. Yet the relative prevalence in recent years of so-called amicable divorce does not compensate for the reality that among this generation of Swedes, those who suffer parental divorce are four times more likely to report serious family discord than their peers with married parents.

Given these outcomes, Gähler and Garriga have every reason to lament the “deterioration of psychological well-being” among young adults in Sweden. Now if only scholars and policymakers in America would do the same, and look to the strengthening of the family—not the welfare state—as the answer.

(Michael Gähler and Anna Garriga, “Has the Association Between Parental Divorce and Young Adults’ Psychological Problems Changed Over Time? Evidence from Sweden, 1968–2000,” forthcoming in Journal of Family Issues.)