"Family forms have become increasingly diverse – a change that sometimes escapes attention in Finland,” Professor Anna-Maija Castrén says.
Family policy debate should change with the times
Anna-Maija Castrén started as Professor of Sociology at the University of Eastern Finland this August, and she has a long track record of research into family and close relationships, and social networks. As a family sociologist, she’d like family policy decisions to be based on as diverse and extensive evidence as possible.
“People’s family relationships would deserve more attention from the state. If we don’t know what kind of families people are living in, and what kind of challenges they may face, society will quickly end up paying the bill.”
Researchers examine how global crises affect young adults’ family formation
Castrén is currently leading a research project that examines young adults’ plans relating to family formation and close relationships in Finland, Scotland and Portugal. Launched in spring 2023, the international NETREP project looks at how adults of childbearing age see the future of families and close relationships in a world plagued by global crises.
The study focuses on people between 25 and 40 years of age who, according to Castrén, have a very diverse view of family and who have seen many different family forms.
“This is also an age group that has experienced an enormous change in working life. Their position in the labour market is often vulnerable and not necessarily strong enough to plan for the future.”
In addition to the precarisation of work and global economic crises, climate change and the Covid pandemic may have changed young adults’ ideas about their future.
“Climate change and the resulting migration, for example, are an increasingly pressing issue in European societies. The Covid pandemic, on the other hand, has contributed to a rapid change in what is considered normal interaction in close relationships.”
By means of qualitative research, the study examines how young adults living in different countries perceive current issues related to reproduction and population renewal.
“It is interesting to see what they perceive as the ideal way to be in a relationship if they could choose, i.e., would they choose the heteronormative family or something else entirely?”
Data collection starts in Finland and Scotland in autumn 2023, and in Portugal in spring 2024. In each country, 20–25 people will be interviewed. The researchers hope to produce a longitudinal set of data, which would enable the monitoring of possible changes in family-related thinking as the subjects get older.
Cultural diversity changes families
Family forms have become tremendously more diverse over the course of life of the young adults participating in NETREP study. In Finland, for example, almost 60% of first-born children are had by women who are not married.
Cultural diversity within societies has grown, too. This was also observed in a study on babies born in Finland’s capital Helsinki. The study run for three months, collecting data on all non-married mothers who gave birth in the autumn of 2015. The mothers were born in 34 different countries, which took even the researchers by surprise.
“Had someone asked this question before this study was carried out, I would have guessed that there were a dozen different countries of birth.”
NETREP starts from the idea that diversity is growing in Europe, and Finland is no exception.
Family formation is not defined by national perspectives alone
The countries involved in the NETREP study differ in their systems of welfare state. The researchers are interested in whether this is relevant to young people’s close relationships and family formation plans.
“Earlier studies have concluded that this has an impact on family formation plans. The question is interesting because our current major global crises are not confined to nation states. Furthermore, young adults do not make their decisions based on whether population renewal is needed in their own country; instead, concerns are global.”
Researchers are keen to know how major global crises, such as climate change, affect young adults’ family formation plans. Previous large-scale international surveys conducted among people in their twenties have explored, e.g., whether young people feel comfortable about bringing children into a world that’s struggling with climate change.
Castrén points out that reproduction involves a lot of inequality.
“We live in a world plagued by global crises, so perhaps we should broaden our horizons and challenge the nation state perspective whose rhetoric revolves around the economy and which sees children primarily as future taxpayers.”
The researchers wish to awaken decision-makers and citizens to the fact that people’s future views of family may be more diverse than those in the current population and family policy.
“Whether or not reproduction should be considered solely in the context of a nation state is a good question.”
Ecological issues are emerging in family sociology
The study to be launched is qualitative and focuses on people over 25 years of age. Also involved in the research project is Professor of Sociology Lynn Jamieson at the University of Edinburgh, who has a long history of exploring the impact of crises, such as climate change and economic instability, on people’s family formation plans. In a study carried out in Italy and Spain, she and colleagues examined the family formation plans of women in their thirties.
“A plethora of interconnected factors have an impact on what individuals think about family formation and its timing. Among the women interviewed for Jamieson’s study, factors such as poor work-life balance, partner commitment, vulnerable labour market position and support networks affected family formation plans. Concerns over the climate crisis, however, weren’t highlighted, but they nevertheless are one piece of the modern family formation puzzle,” Castrén says.
Jamieson’s way of considering ecological issues in the sociology of family and close relationships is pioneering.
“We want to include the climate crisis in our research into family and close relationships in sociology and social sciences. We can no longer expect people to form families as they did in the 1960s,” Castrén points out.
Professor of Sociology, University of Eastern Finland, 1 August 2023–
Doctor of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki, 2001
Master of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki, 1993
Title of Docent in Sociology, University of Helsinki, 2010
Associate Professor (Tenure Track), University of Eastern Finland, 2019–2023
Research Director, University of Eastern Finland, 2018– 2019
Professor (fixed term), University of Eastern Finland, 2016–2018
University Lecturer, University of Eastern Finland, 2013–2016
Visiting Researcher, University of Geneva, Switzerland, 2013
Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Helsinki, 2003–2005
Print-quality photos of Anna-Maija Castrén:
For further information, please contact:
Anna-Maija Castrén, Professor, tel. +358 50 349 8374, anna-maija.castren(at)uef.fi, UEF Connect