Couple by a lagoon in Iceland. Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash
Couple by a lagoon in Iceland. Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

The Nordic countries are interesting for demographers to study as they can be seen as family forerunners. Many of the trends in having children outside of marriage, delaying childbearing, co-habitation and increasing numbers of divorces are seen in the Nordics first, before the trends continue to spread to other countries. 

– Iceland can be seen as “ultra-nordic” in the sense that the demographic trends there are even stronger than in the rest of the Nordics. As I write in my thesis, nowhere in Europe are premarital births more common than in Iceland and cohabitation before marriage has been semi-formalized for decades. Also, compared to other European countries outside of the Nordics, fertility has remained relatively high and stable, even more so than in the rest of the Nordic countries, says Ari Klængur Jónsson, newly appointed PhD in Sociological Demography.

His thesis is the first that gives an overview of childbearing, family formation and union dissolution in Iceland during 1982-2013. 

– Although the country is among the smallest in Europe it is an interesting case. Iceland is a fully sovereign welfare state and has high-qualitative register data that covers the whole population. Given that, it can be seen as a “quasi-laboratory” for researchers that study societal change, he says. 

The total share of people getting married remains the same

One study in the thesis shows that even though 70 per cent of all children in Iceland, and 83 per cent of the firstborn children, are born outside of marriage, most people tend to marry in the end. There has been a postponement of marriage and childbearing in the country, which according to previous research can be explained with prolonged education for both men and women, and a high female labor force participation.  

Ari Klængur Jónsson. Photo: Private
Ari Klængur Jónsson. Photo: Private

– The total share of people in Iceland getting married is more or less the same during these years that I study, except for a temporary decline following the economic collapse in Iceland in 2008. Marriage is not outdated; the vast majority of women still marry after having children. There isn’t much change in the childbearing behavoiour or the divorce risk either during the period that I study, Ari Klængur Jónsson says. 

The fact that not much has changed is something that surprised him as a researcher. 
– I did not expect this stability for marriage and divorce during these twenty years that I studied in this study. The underlying behavior is more or less the same, after we have controlled for various demographic factors that might influence the behavior, he says.   

Less risk of divorce for couples that register cohabitation first

Another study in the thesis shows that couples that register cohabitation before they get married, have a lower risk of divorce than those who don’t register cohabitation before they marry. This is a novelty since previous research findings usually shows the opposite.

– My interpretation is that registered cohabitation helps to weed out couples that are a poor match, which results in lower risks of divorce. Cohabitation can therefore be seen as a “trial marriage”. Today most people cohabit before marriage and cohabitation is generally done for the children. Marriage is more for the couple, it gives them an elevated status, Ari Klængur Jonsson says.

Cohabitation in Iceland is semi-formalized. This leaves the country’s legislation somewhere in between France with its formalized cohabitation-system, and Sweden’s un-formalized system where you don’t formally register that you are cohabitating with a partner.

– In this particular study, I only analyze those couples in Iceland who register cohabitation, which means that my results also have to do with selection. You can see that these couples take one step after the other, marriage after cohabitation, so if it evolves that way it also says something about the couple, he says. 

Nordic people have been cohabiting since the 800s

The culture of cohabitation has a longer tradition in all the Nordic countries than one might think. 

– Back in the 800s, cohabitation was used as a sort of engagement or common law marriage called “festar” in the old Nordic countries. Couples could live together without being married by the church, Ari Klængur Jonsson says.

The Catholic church and the following Lutheran church never had the same influence as elsewhere in Europe, and the tolerance for having children outside of marriage was relatively high. 

– In the 1800s, forty percent of the children were born outside of marriage, which is considered relatively high today in Europe or in the world. But even then, the final destination was marriage for most people. This shows that we are still more or less doing the same thing as back then, Ari Klængur Jonsson says.

More about the research

Thesis: 

Jónsson, Ari Klængur, “Beyond a Second Demographic Transition? Fertility and family dynamics in Iceland”

Studies in the thesis cited in this interview: 

Jónsson, Ari Klængur, “A Nation of Bastards? Registered Cohabitation, Childbearing, and First-Marriage Formation in Iceland, 1994–2013", European Journal of Population. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10680-020-09560-2 

Klængur Jónsson, Ari. “Friends or Foes: Semi-Formalized Cohabitation and Subsequent Marital Stability in Iceland, 1995-2013”, Stockholm Research Reports in Demography 2020:10, (working paper, not yet peer reviewed).