Does Parenthood Impact Life Satisfaction in Older Age?

A new study using SHARE data scrutinizes the “parental happiness gap” for individuals aged 50+ in the context of health decline.

  • By and large, the differences in the life satisfaction trajectories of Europeans aged 50+ due to parental status are found to be minor and insignificant.
  • With the onset of health-related limitations, life satisfaction decreases.
  • For men, having children appears to mitigate health decline and its negative effect on life satisfaction. This is not the case for women.
  • People consider their long-term benefits when deciding upon having children.

(May 2023) A new study aims to shed light on the role of parenthood on well-being in older age. Using data from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), Gerrit Bauer, Martina Brandt and Thorsten Kneip estimate and compare the age profiles in life satisfaction of parents and otherwise similar childless individuals aged 50+. They further investigate whether health-related limitations or individuals’ coping with these limitations account for (or obscure) differences in well-being trajectories. The researchers find that older parents’ life satisfaction develops slightly less favourably than that of their childless peers, stressing however that this difference is not significant. While for men being a parent promotes maintained health and mitigates the negative effect of health limitations on life satisfaction once they occur, this is not the case for women.

Comparison over time through use of SHARE data

The authors use data from SHARE Waves 2, 4, 5 and 6. They draw on information from almost 60.000 respondents from seventeen European countries and Israel. The longitudinal nature of the SHARE survey allows them to study within-person changes in life satisfaction over time and relate them to the onset of health-related limitations. 

Children’s role for parents’ health and life satisfaction over the life course

The authors hypothesize that life satisfaction in older age is particularly influenced by the onset of and coping with health limitations, which themselves may differ by parental status and gender. Children are considered both, sources of social control (promoting healthy behaviour) and stress. Since parenthood integrates people into society and structures one’s everyday life through routines and obligations, social control might increase with family relationships and induce more responsible health behaviour. On the other hand, the researchers consider the opposite effect: Parenting young children is often associated with exposure to stress, which promotes earlier health decline. Especially mothers are exposed to psychological strains, as women are increasingly confronted with the double burden of formal labour supply and primary caregiving.
The authors also suppose that obtaining support from children may mitigate the negative effects of health-related limitations on life satisfaction. In contrast, if older parents do not receive the support they expect from their children, the resulting disappointment may exacerbate the negative consequences of health decline.

Highest life satisfaction around the age of 70

Bauer, Brandt and Kneip find that parenthood may have a slightly negative impact on life satisfaction at older ages. However, the difference they find in respondents’ well-being trajectories is minor and statistically insignificant. Whereas the life satisfaction of childless women develops somewhat more favourably than that of mothers, there was no clear difference for men. The participants report the highest life satisfaction around the age of 70 (“retirement hump”). With further increasing age, well-being gradually declines as health-related limitations increase.

Mothers and fathers cope differently with the effects of health decline

In regard to coping with health decline, the authors find gender-related differences: For male respondents, children appear to act as a source of social control promoting maintained health and as a coping resource mitigating the negative impact of health decline. Fathers’ life satisfaction would have developed less favourably if they had remained childless. Women, on the contrary, do not seem to benefit in the same way. By tendency, their life satisfaction would have developed more positively without children, pointing to their disappointment with the amount of support they receive from their children. 

Many paths to life satisfaction

Given that the observed differences remain very small, Bauer, Brandt and Kneip conclude that their results are in line with the notion of rational actors weighing the advantages and disadvantages of parenthood. Those who believe they will benefit from having children are more likely to choose to become parents, whereas those who do not believe so tend to invest in tighter friendship networks. According to their individual expectations, people seek out their preferred paths to life satisfaction.

Study by Gerrit Bauer, Martina Brandt and Thorsten Kneip (2023). The Role of Parenthood for Life Satisfaction of Older Women and Men in Europe. Journal of Happiness Studies 24: 275–307. DOI: 10.1007/s10902-022-00600-8.



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