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Working paper

Transformative event, disruption or cumulative disadvantage? Labor market and education trajectories of young mothers in Australia

Women and employment Educational achievement Mothers Mothers and employment Teenagers Australia

Young motherhood in generally viewed as a risky event, adding complexity and hardship to the life of both the young woman and her child. Previous research has found that young mothers fall behind on both educational- and income measures later in life. At the same time, qualitative research reports stories of motherhood as a transformative experience, where the birth of a child provides motivation for a fresh start, moving young women away from previously unstable paths. While these two scenarios might appear contradictory, it may be that outcomes vary for different groups of women depending on the path they were already on before becoming a parent. 

We investigate the effects of young parenthood on the following years of labour market and educational participation, using data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey. We use a longitudinal sequence based approach, taking into account the stability of the educational and work pathways of young mothers by looking at how they transition in and out of employment on a week by week basis, in a measure of ‘precarity’. By utilising this detailed information on the labour market and educational pathways before the birth of their first child, we can compare young mothers to peers who were on a very similar path, but did not become parents. This way, we come closer to the answer of how the life of young mothers diverges from what would otherwise be expected, were they to not have a child.

Our results suggest that young motherhood has a negative impact for young women who were initially on a path that was not associated with a lot of precarity, such as women stably in education. This supports the idea of young motherhood as a cumulative disadvantage. However, this was not true for women on the most precarious paths. For them, becoming a mother did not impact their continuing labour market trajectory negatively, but neither did it lead to any improvements in comparison to women on similar paths who did not become a parent. We can conclude that we do not see the narratives of transformative power translated in to reality for this group. This leaves us with the question, how can we harness the transformative energy expressed by disadvantaged young mothers in qualitative research, and move past the point where young women are ‘not that much worse off than expected’ to ‘better than expected’, after becoming a parent? 

These insights are useful for decreasing stigma towards young parents, and blaming all misfortune on ‘bad choices’. Indeed, stigma has been quoted as a significant barrier for young mothers, leading them to avoid interacting with supportive services, the very behaviour that could help young mothers utilise their transformative energy. 

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Life Course Centre Working Paper No. 2020-04