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How migration, families, and life courses are interrelated

Helga de Valk about her work as a professor and director of the NIDI
04 April 2022

Helga de Valk has been interested in the life courses of young people ever since she was a student. Over the years, this interest extended to the interrelationship between migration, families, and life courses. Today, Helga de Valk is Professor of Migration and the Life Course and director of the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI).

Helga de Valk
Helga de Valk (Photo's: Reyer Boxem)

You are Honorary Professor of Migration and the Life Course at the UG. What do you focus on?

My research mainly looks at how migration, families, and life courses are interrelated. I particularly focus on the life courses of young people with a migration background. In a current project, for example, I am studying how relocations during childhood affect later life outcomes. We compare young people with and without migration backgrounds in several European countries using large-scale survey and register data. I am supervising 10 PhD students and postdocs, as well as several Bachelor’s and Master’s students in their research. Transferring knowledge to the next generation of talented young people is a special, beautiful thing to be able to do!

Where did your interest in this field come from?

I have been interested in young people and their life courses ever since I was a student of sociology and pedagogy. I find it fascinating to learn more about the backgrounds to different life courses, how they are shaped by childhood experiences, but also how the effects could differ for different groups of young people. In the end, the questions of how inequality of opportunity is created and how it remains in force or can be reduced, always remain key. Migration and its effects on individuals and society intrigued me, perhaps because I myself have also lived in various different places in the world since I was a student. This teaches you a lot about yourself and about the context in which you grew up, and it also makes you understand how moving affects you as well as, for example, your family ties.

What do we mean by ‘life course’, and how have life courses changed, for example, in recent decades?

Essentially, life course is a concept that is directly related to demography: it is about everything that a person experiences in life, from birth until death. It is not just the individuals, but also, in particular, their interactions with the environment and important others in their lives that affect the choices they make in life. These choices may concern anything: from entering partnerships to having children and dividing tasks in the household, as well as lifestyle and health. A life course is embedded in a certain time and place. This means that changes occur over time, but also that lives progress differently in different parts of the world. In Europe, for example, we are seeing delays in entering partnerships and having children. It is also interesting to see that young people with a migration background in countries such as the Netherlands increasingly postpone these types of choices.

Helga de Valk
"Migration and its effects on the individual and society intrigued me, perhaps also because I myself have lived in various places around the world since my student days."

You are not only a professor at the UG; in 2020, you also became director of the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI). Could you tell us a bit more about this institute?

The NIDI is the Dutch national demographic institute, where all knowledge and expertise that exist in this field in the Netherlands are brought together. The institute is over 50 years old. In 2003, it joined the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), and since 2014 we are also affiliated with the UG. Excellent research into population development in the Netherlands and Europe (and sometimes the whole world) takes centre stage. In addition, we aim to share knowledge from this research with society and policymakers. We have about 50 researchers working in our building in The Hague, not far from the Binnenhof political centre. We translate the knowledge that we acquire in large-scale academic internationally comparative projects financed by NWO or Europe (for example Horizon Europe and ERC) in various different ways, for example, in our popular science magazine Demos. In addition, the NIDI plays an important role in the data infrastructure in the Netherlands and abroad, for example, via the Gender and Generations Program. We are also firmly anchored in European demography and have co-founded the Population Europe network together with several key players, and we are coordinator of the European association for population studies (EAPS), which I currently have the honour to be President of as well.

The NIDI is affiliated with the University of Groningen. What does that mean?

This collaboration is a beautiful way to connect and anchor our institute more strongly in the University. Our research is now an integral part of the University of Groningen, and the majority of our current 40 PhD students are following their PhD programme at the UG. Several NIDI researchers are also professors at the UG, just like me. Thanks to its interdisciplinary character, our research is linked to several different faculties, from Spatial Sciences to Behavioural and Social Sciences and the UMCG. We had already joined several cross-faculty activities, and now we are also actively involved in the Schools that are being developed, such as the Aletta Jacobs School and the Rudolf Agricola School. In addition, we make contributions to research-driven teaching and act as an internship and final-year project host for UG students. This provides the UG with a ‘home’ in The Hague, where a special UG room and our meeting facilities are available to the University.

Helga de Valk
"The beauty of the different roles I get to have is that you can act as a bridge."

Which role does the NIDI play, for example, in policy made by the national government or other organizations?

The NIDI has always been connected to policy. In the past, NIDI research was often commissioned by the government (both national and European). Although this has now changed significantly due to changes in funding, NIDI research is still closely related to policy. Just last year, we completed the Verkenning Bevolking 2050 report, coordinated by the NIDI at the request of the Dutch House of Representatives and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. This study attracted a lot of attention, also in the media, and was presented to several ministries at the highest official level. NIDI researchers are also regularly asked to contribute their expertise to Parliamentary Committees. In addition, the institute has strong ties to several knowledge institutions in the field of demography, such as the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Several colleagues are in the advisory councils of these institutions and are consulted for both research and policy advice. I myself am a member of the Dutch Advisory Council on Migration, which issues advice to the Dutch Government and Parliament on migration issues. The NIDI thus influences policy at various different levels.

What is the added value of the combination of your two positions?

The great thing about the different roles I get to play is that I can function as a bridge-builder: between disciplines, between research and teaching, between academics in different stages of their careers, between research and policy, and between research institutions and the University. That combination is unique and creates beautiful interrelationships, which in turn result in exchanges that are more than just the sum of their parts. I still have a lot of plans within this partnership, which I hope we will be able to further develop together in the coming years!

Last modified:04 April 2022 4.33 p.m.
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