© 2019 by Nicole Hiekel

Current Research

Social Mechanisms of intergenerational social inequality


Excerpt of the introduction (draft) for a single-authored chapter in a book (Editor: Aart C. Liefbroer) that synthesizes findings from the Contexts of Opportunity Project (ERC Advanced Grant, Pi: A. Liefbroer):

The “Contexts of Opportunity” (CONOPP) project contributes to our understanding of the production and reproduction of social inequality by providing empirical evidence of the associations between childhood (dis)advantage, demographic choices in young adulthood and their joint influence on later life (dis)advantage. The point of departure is the assumption that unfavorable childhood circumstances, such as growing up in poverty and experiencing one’s parents’ divorce, are part and parcel of the reproduction of social inequality via demographic choices that are known to have potential adverse social and economic consequences when experienced too early and in (potential) unstable relationship contexts, for instance childbearing. A central aim of the CONOPP project is to systematically take a country comparative perspective to study the paramount importance of societal institutions in equalizing social inequality shaped by childhood family background.

The way in which family background influences children’s demographic choices and later life outcomes are at the core of economic and cultural transmission models of social inequality. These models underlie assumptions about various social mechanisms that explain why and how parents and the family context during childhood shape their children’s life courses through adulthood. In the following, In the following, I will briefly contrast the economic and cultural perspective of these transmission processes. Next, I will apply their theoretical considerations on the associations investigated within the CONOPP project following the CONOPP research design illustrated in figure x in the [introduction of this book]. I will refer to findings of the CONOPP project regarding the evidence that they reveal regarding the different pathways linking childhood circumstances, young adult demographic choices and their outcomes. I will finally conclude with some suggestions on how future research can further push the boundaries of understanding these associations.

Childhood family structure and complex partnership trajectories in adult life

Does family structure during childhood explain variation in adult's partnership patterns?  Together with Sergi Vidal (CED) I investigate whether childhood family structure predicts patterns of serial cohabitation in adult life. Using Pairfam data on roughly 3,000 West German women and men born in the early 1970s and who are around 40 years old at interview with detailed and yearly information on the parent's relationship status, parental separation, single parenthood and repartnering between birth and age 18, we will investigate whether the established timing effects of family structure on the key demographic events in the transition to adulthood (leaving home, union formation, marriage, childbearing) also translate in greater complexity of partnership trajectories until age 40.


The paper has been presented  at the 16th Meeting of the European Network for the Sociological and Demographic Study of Divorce, Tel Aviv, October 10. - 12., 2018). It will be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America in Austin TX, United States (April 10-13, 2019).

The paper is currently revised (R&R) for resubmission to Social Science Research.

The transition from marital separation to divorce in Germany

A marital separation can be more harmful and traumatic experience for the spouses and children involved than the eventual legalization of the separation through divorce (Cherlin 1992). The likelihood that a separation is legalized by divorce as well as the duration between separation and divorce may vary across subgroups (Benett 2017). This project aims at increasing our understanding of determinants of marital instability with a focus on its process character. Are established determinants of marital separation identical to those of marital divorce? Together with Michael Wagner (University of Cologne) I analyze German survey data to increase our understanding of the transition from marital separation to divorce.

Do Individualized Marital Practices Increase the Risk of Marital Dissolution?

The emergence of individualized marriage has been put forward to explain the greater marital instability of contemporary marriages. In individualized marriages, spouses seek high levels of intimacy, have a great sense of personal autonomy and apply democratic principles when solving disagreement. Together with Michael Wagner (University of Cologne) I investigate whether individualized marital practices are associated with the risk of marital dissolution, and if so, how? Using the German Family Panel (2008-2016; N=3,030 individuals; 16,697 person-year observations) we examine whether these marital practices are associated with marital dissolution. Our findings show that higher levels of intimacy, autonomy and democracy decrease the risk of marital dissolution when entered individually in a model controlling for potential confounders. Examined jointly in one model, only higher levels of intimacy show a statistically significant negative association with marital dissolution. Moreover, particularly long-term marriages’ stability profits from greater intimacy. These findings call for more research on relationship dynamics within individualized marriages that may jeopardize their marital stability differently compared to traditional types of marriage.

The paper has been presented at the European Population Conference 2016 in Mainz Germany (31.8.-3.9.) as well as at the 14th Meeting of the European Divorce Network in Stockholm, Sweden (12.10-15.10.). It will be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America in Chicago, IL, United States (27.-29.4.2017).

The paper is currently under review in European Sociological Review.

The long term cost of partnership and fertility trajectory: later life labour market income of women across Europe


I have the honour to co-supervise (together with Aart C. Liefbroer) the dissertation project of Joanne Sophie Muller (NIDI). I co-author a paper on later life earning inequality among women with different family trajectories. The increase of female employment was the most significant change in labour markets during the past century. However, a woman’s earnings remain closely related to her changing family role over the life course. Mothers’ wages lag behind those of childless women, even after controlling for work experience. This so called “motherhood penalty” is a well-established finding in many Western countries. Against this background, the present study will address the research question: what is the association between the family trajectory and later life labour market income among women? Also, we ask whether this association differs between countries. We contribute to the literature in three main ways. First, we take a holistic life course approach by combining multiple characteristics of the family trajectory. Previous research mainly focused on the effects of single events, for instance the mother’s age at first birth. However we expect that the interplay between fertility and partnership history is relevant. Therefore, we combine them into one typology using sequence analysis. Second, we focus on later life outcomes. Most studies regard short-term income effects. However, women’s decision to reduce their working hours not only lowers current income, but also compromises future earnings. Third, this study provides a cross-country perspective. Previous research suggests that motherhood effects on income are shaped by country-specific family policies and cultural attitudes. We contribute to the literature by assessing a large number of country contexts. To answer our research questions, we will use data from 22 countries in the Generations and Gender Surveys and SHARELIFE.

The paper is currently under review after resubmission (R&R) in Demography.