Family Economics
Prof. Dr. Christian Bredemeier / Applied Economics
Photo: Friederike von Heyden

Understanding family life means understanding human action

The economist Christian Bredemeier researches family economics

There are plenty of tasks in a family. From vacuuming, cleaning, cooking, washing up, shopping, feeding the pets, gardening and taking out the rubbish. To planning the children's birthday, going to the car repair shop or making a bank transfer, the question is: "Who will do it? No one has yet invented the perfect recipe for this, but the present research and findings of family economics can also be successfully applied to other areas. At the University of Wuppertal, Christian Bredemeier is conducting research in this area at his Chair of Applied Economics. "Family economics means understanding family life, using ways of thinking and concepts that help us to understand people's economic actions in other areas outside the family as well."

Family as a group of individuals interacting with each other

"The family is a group of individuals who interact with each other, who have their own interests, likes and dislikes, as well as possibilities and limits," explains the economist. "And who sometimes come into conflict as a result. It is often about very concrete life decisions In family economics. Such as changing jobs, moving, or the topic of children in connection with possible career interruptions. "It is also about the formation of families, of households. Coming together in partnership, moving in together and eventual marriage, and also the dissolution of families, that is, separation and divorce." The economic concepts used in this area is already successfully being used in other areas. A cleverly developed division of labour, for example, is the key to success in many companies.

Family: a group of individuals

"It is always fascinating how much can be understood," the 39-year-old explains, "if you take a very sober look at the economic framework conditions to which families and their individual members are exposed, even without resorting to factors that are difficult to measure and quantify." But norms and role models are also of great importance, the scientist states. If one understands the role of the family for entirely economic issues, one can also design state systems sensibly and would meaningfully complement what happens in the family. "One example is the design of social security systems," says Bredemeier, "because families play a role there and form the first safety net for people." It is also important to understand how family processes work when designing the tax and transfer system and labour law.Family constellations have changed. Marriage is no longer a necessary basis, new step- or patchwork families are emerging from separations, new living and house communities, even together with older members of the grandparents' generation. Single parents are standard. Bredemeier says: "With each new family form comes the challenge of understanding why it forms and what that means for the people who live in it." In a changing family world, A no longer necessarily leads to B, as the classic family situation would dictate. "We are not rigidly adapted to the classic father-mother-child image. We understand family as a group of individuals who are not fixed to one form of family."

Invest more in fewer children?

Many Germans often have fewer children, but they invest more in them and seem to plan their future more perfectly. "There are a lot of studies that clearly indicate that investments by parents play a major role in later life," Bredemeier says. But at the same time he also emphasises that one's own nature as well as the personality of the parents play an important role, regardless of the potential promotion. It is interesting, how many disciplines deal with this phenomenon. "For us family economists, it is quite clear that, from the point of view of society as a whole, there can also be too much parental investment," if, for example, there is a kind of competition between parents to put their own child in a better starting position. Competition for coveted places at renowned universities is a good example. "Then a very classic economic problem arises that we have understood outside the family for a very long time. Namely a situation in which what is good for me is bad for others."Moreover, this puts enormous pressure on the children, who must also be able to fulfil the expectations placed on them. "If you look at one-child families for two generations, four grandparents have only one grandchild. And many adults look at the one child. It has to cope with that first." Naturally, fewer children in a society also have an impact on a country's pension system, but Bredemeier points out that having children has shifted in terms of age. "Women who were already no longer included in the statistics because of their age have had children at an age when previous generations no longer did so. There was a certain delay in perception, but the birth rate is gradually rising again.

Who does the lion's share of the housework?

Many couples who plan to have children wish that both parents would work roughly the same number of hours and take care of the household and children together. But even today, it is usually the woman who stays at home after pregnancy and has greater difficulties re-entering the labour market. Women still do the lion's share of the housework. This often gives the impression that gender equality is only in the mind. "I think the desire for a fair division of tasks probably does not always stand up to the confrontations with the challenges after the birth of children," the economist explains. On the other hand, "there have also been very good studies in recent years that prove that gender images, stereotypes and role models still exist and that families take a lot on themselves to conform to these role models that they themselves or others have of them," Bredemeier knows.
The impact of declining marriages on family economic processes
"Marriage makes living together more binding from an economic point of view and also makes it harder to end," the economist says. And this has a number of implications for living together as a couple, especially when it comes to long-term investments. "Is it worth buying a house, for example, if the partner could leave at any time? Is it worth giving up a career for the family if you might end up alone? Are you prepared to put up with your partner whose career is faltering or who has just lost his or her job, if you are not sure that your partner might leave you in the opposite situation? These are all questions that can arise in the decision-making situation of the individual in the relationship." There is a lot of empirical data on the effects of unilateral divorce. And the change in the legal situation in Western countries has an impact both on women's employment, the level of domestic violence, and on child development and savings behaviour. "The decision of marriage certificate yes or no has a similar dimension."

Birds of a feather flock together…

Today, people often look for partners with similar education and social background. Science speaks of assortative pair-bonding. This trend is partly responsible for the growing economic inequality of households within many countries. "The assortative pair formation is true," Bredemeier confirms. "People who are similar come together. Above all, we see that educational level and income play more and more of a role. If a well-off person also gets a well-off partner, that of course increases the difference in income, compared to people who have a lower level of education and earn less. It makes the difference between households bigger." The issue of inequality has been discussed in economics for a very long time. Basically, there are various policies to ensure that people without a high level of education have an adequate income. One could, for example, extend advantages for low-income earners in the tax and social system, the expert explains, but there must also be the political will to do so.

New, family-economic concepts for a changed society

Social norms have changed. Same-sex relationships, extramarital sex and even married women at work are socially accepted today. This has also required new concepts in family economics. "Sex is probably only the tip of what was once reserved for marriage at some point, but today also exists outside of marriage as a matter of course," Bredemeier says. He adds that even banal things have a similar past. "Certain household chores used to simply have to be done by family members. Today, of course, we can cede that to service providers or to machines. We have understood these processes quite well." One of the core themes of family economics, is women's participation in the workforce, which we now perceive as normal. The researcher describes the age of dual-earner families as the 'new normal', which also leads to new conclusions. Likewise, same-sex relationships are an exciting field for science. "Such relationships allow us to study and observe role distributions in situations where gender in the biological sense does not play a role. Many colleagues are already excited, because once marriage for all has been around for a few years and we have sufficient data, this data will help us to understand family processes even better."

Uwe Blass (Interview on August 18, 2021)

Since 2019, Prof. Dr. Christian Bredemeier heads the Chair of Applied Economics at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Wuppertal, the Schumpeter School of Business and Economics.

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