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Does having children make people happier in old age?

The benefits of having children for one’s quality of life highly depend on financial circumstances, according to a new study based on SHARE data.


(August 2017) Having children is central to a fulfilling life – at least that’s what folk theories usually assume. However, empirical research has found no clear evidence that parenthood has a positive impact on quality of life. Yet several studies show that the effect of parenthood on quality of life may depend on individual circumstances and the societal context. A new study by Franz Stephan Neuberger and Klaus Preisner analyses whether children increase quality of life for elderly parents – and demonstrates that this is especially the case for older people with financial difficulties.

The more support is needed, the more important are children?
The researchers mention two contradicting concepts regarding possible relations between parenthood and quality of life that might be at work here. According to a supportive-benefit assumption, parenthood will increase quality of life the more informal support children provide to their parents. Based on an emotional-benefit assumption, children are first of all an important resource for social contact – therefore, children will increase quality of life even more when there is no need of costly informal support. With their empirical research, Neuberger and Preisner intend to test which of the two assumptions holds true.

Study based on SHARE and ELSA
To test their assumptions, the researchers are using data from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) and the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). Both of them are longitudinal surveys collecting data from a representative sample of people aged 50 or over. Using similar designs, SHARE and ELSA are directly comparable to each other. The analysis is based on the second and the fourth wave of SHARE (2007 and 2011) and wave 6 of ELSA (2013). The sample includes 47,620 respondents from 19 European countries.

Elderly people with financial difficulties benefit more from having children
The results show that the effect of parenthood on quality of life in old age depends on individual as well as contextual resources. For elderly people with financial difficulties, the researchers find a significant positive effect of parenthood on quality of life. Hence, the supportive-benefit assumption holds true. Respondents without having difficulties in making ends meet, however, do not benefit from having children in old age, whereas unprivileged respondents benefit more from parenthood. Furthermore, the benefit of parenthood is highest in poorest countries. With regard to gender, the analysis shows no evidence for the widespread assumption that parenthood is of greater importance to the quality of life for women than of men.

Study by: Franz Stephan Neuberger and Klaus Preisner. 2017. Parenthood and the Quality of Life in Old Age: The Role of Individual Resources, the Welfare State and the Economy. Social Indicators Research (online first).