Childlessness, Parenthood and Subjective Well-Being. the Relevance of Conceptualizing Parenthood and Childlessness As a Continuum

Marco Albertini, University of Bologna
Bruno Arpino, Pompeu Fabra University

Childlessness in old age is a growing phenomenon in Western societies. Previous literature has found negative consequences of childlessness on subjective wellbeing (SWB) in later life. We argue, however, that childless and parents are heterogeneous groups and they are better conceptualized as poles of a continuum rather than a simple dichotomy. We suggest that geographical distance from and contact with children are important factors to identify intermediate levels of parenthood/childlessness.

We assess the association between these parenthood-related variables and subjective wellbeing (SWB) using data from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe. We also explore the moderator role of the national social context.

Combining information on the number of children, their geographical distance to respondents and contacts we create a typology representing different degrees of childlessness/parenthoods to then use data from SHARE to explore its association with SWB. We estimate multivariate linear and ordinal logistic models, by groups of countries, with clustered standard errors to account for within-individual correlation.

Number of children is positively associated with SWB and people having only one child do not different substantially from childless individuals. Geographical closeness to children per se is not associated with SWB. Differently, parent-child contacts substantially affect SWB. Older individuals who have rare or no contact with children report SWB levels considerably lower than their childless counterparts. This pattern is similar across different contexts, the only exception being that contacts are more important for SWB in strong family ties societies.

Conceptualizing childlessness and parenthood as two poles of a continuum has important theoretical, empirical and policy consequences. Consequences of ageing alone has to be understood not only in terms of presence or absence of kin, but also in terms of the quality of the relations; next they should be examined with reference to the societal context.

Presented in Session 15: Family Dynamics and Health