Dr Christoph Becker on email interview with DisCourse team. He is research assistant, Alfred Weber Institute for Economics at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.
There is evidence that the relationship between children and wellbeing becomes more positive for older respondents... positive aspects of parenthood dominate when getting older. The role of children as a form of social support may become important in the later stages of a person’s life. Why do parents in Europe with well-established social support network tend to depend on children as caregivers?
Past literature indeed suggests that older parents tend to have on average higher wellbeing than younger ones. We find similarly that older European parents whose children do not live on the same household have on average a higher life satisfaction than those with resident children. This might be due to the positive aspects of parenthood (such as social support) prevailing, once children move out. However, from our data we cannot be certain about this. We have also to consider alternative explanations. For example, children of parents that want their children to move out might be more likely to do so in the first place.
We can also not tell to which degree parents truly rely on care given by their children. What we do find, on the other hand, is that older Europeans with a social support network tend to exhibit on average higher life satisfaction, no matter if it is a network made up of children, their partner or friends. As respondents in the survey were asked to name persons with whom they regularly share their thoughts and problems with, this is most likely less due to care given. Instead having social and emotional support by persons close to yourself seems to be important. If older persons do not have a partner anymore, or no children of their own, networks of close friends or relatives can provide a similar level of social support. As the main focus of our study was studying the connections between social networks and life satisfaction over and beyond parenthood and marital status, we consider these results to be the most important ones.
“Literature has suggested that there might be U-shaped connection between age and happiness: people become less happy in middle age, but more happy in older age”. Would you elucidate this, especially why parents in middle age are less happy?
Our results could point into the direction that at least parents might exhibit a U-shaped connection between age and happiness. As our results are correlative in nature, one has to be careful with causal interpretations. However, if the connection between resident children and life satisfaction holds, this would imply that life satisfaction increases once children move out. Normally, this would be the case for older children, whose parents are naturally also older.
Also, we should keep in mind that it might not children moving out that is correlated to higher life satisfaction. Instead it might just be that older, more mature and self-reliant children are tied to higher life satisfaction because they require less time and effort. As these children might be the ones that are more likely to move out, this connection would be captured by our variable measuring resident children.
A report by Princeton University and Stony Brook University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found “very little difference” between the life satisfaction of parents and people without children, once other factors — such as income, education, religion and health — were factored out. How does this jell with your findings?
Whether or not parenthood leads to higher or lower life satisfaction is still debated in literature. We also included variables for income, education, health and others into our regressions and still found small differences. Controlling for resident children might be the key here.
Another study, by the Open University in England, found childless couples were happier with their relationships and their partners than parents were, and were doing more work on their relationships than parenting couples. Does this not hold good any further?
Unfortunately, we have no data on how satisfied respondents where with their partners.
Do your findings correlate with the scene in the USA where below poverty line sections are taken care of the State but even a four-member above poverty line family finds it difficult keep itself happily intact when there is a domestic health or financial crisis?
I don’t think that our research can inform you on that matter.