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Health Effects of Social Change in Gender, Work & Family: Life Course Evidence from Great Britain

Final Report Summary - SOCIALCHANGEHEALTH (Health Effects of Social Change in Gender, Work & Family: Life Course Evidence from Great Britain)

The aim of this study was to use data from four British birth cohort studies to assess the health impact of social change in women’s and men’s work-family life courses, for both the women and men themselves, but also for their children.

The main work of this project used detailed, yearly information on employment, partnership and parental status throughout adulthood in three British birth cohort studies: The MRC National Study of Health and Development 1946 birth cohort study (NSHD, 5,362 people), the National Child Development Study 1958 birth cohort study (NCDS, 18,558 people) and the British Cohort Study 1970 birth cohort study (BCS, 19, 101 people). Multichannel sequence analysis was used to create work-family life course typologies amongst men and women in each of the three cohorts. This body of work advanced the area of ‘social roles and health’ by allowing for detailed characterisation of work and family life course data through the application of a novel statistical technique, by using objectively measured biomarker stress outcomes, in addition to self-reported health outcomes, and by including men, allowing for gender comparisons across cohorts.

First, an investigation of gender differences in work-family life courses across the three cohorts investigated whether men’s and women’s life courses were becoming more similar, and whether work-family life courses are becoming more diverse and destandardised as has been suggested previously. We found evidence of growing between-person diversity, across cohorts, for both women and men. In addition, we showed that partnership trajectories have grown more complex for both genders in Britain, while parental biographies and women’s work histories have become less so. Women’s and men’s work-family life courses did become increasingly similar across cohorts as more women engaged in continuous full-time employment; however, life courses involving part-time employment or a career break remained common for women in the most recent cohort. Continuous, full-time employment combined with minimal family ties up to age 42 emerged as the most common pattern for women and the second most common for men in the 1970 cohort.

Next, associations between work-family life courses and subsequent health outcomes were examined, using both subjective and objective markers of health status, and making gender and cohort comparisons where possible. Objective ‘biomarkers’ of risk factors for chronic illness such as hypertension, inflammation, central adiposity and fats and glucose circulating in the blood were collected once in the NCDS 1958 birth cohort and twice in the NSHD 1946 birth cohort, but at different ages in each. As a result, investigation of associations between objective markers of health and work-family life courses was conducted within cohorts. In the case of body mass index and mental health measures existed across all three cohorts and at similar ages so that comparisons could be drawn across all three cohorts.

What emerged consistently across the outcomes, be it markers of inflammation, metabolic risk factors, body mass index or mental health, was the importance of the timing of transitions to parenthood, with earlier transitions associated with increased health risk in mid-life. This health risk was equally important for men and women, suggesting social and behavioural rather than biological pathways. Cross-cohort analysis also showed that these differences in health risk by age of entry into parenthood increase in strength across cohorts, so that the potential health risk associated with early parenthood is stronger for those born in 1970 than for those born in 1946 when early parenthood was more normative.

In addition to the most consistent finding related to timing of parenthood, this work has also shown that women who spent long periods of their adult lives out of paid work to look after the home and family had lower life satisfaction in their early sixties in the MRC NSHD 1946 birth cohort, and raised levels of inflammation in their mid-forties in the NCDS 1958 cohort. Men in the 1946 birth cohort who had not formed families also had significantly lower life satisfaction in their early sixties.

In addition to the focus on adult health, this project investigated the impact of gendered family labour patterns on children’s emotional and physical development, as well as the wellbeing of their parents, in the UK Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). This work has shown that more egalitarian divisions of labour and attitudes to maternal employment are linked with better mental health outcomes and more relationships satisfaction for both mothers and fathers. In addition, it has shown that the amount of agreement, or concordance, in such attitudes within couples, as well as between attitudes and actual behaviour (maternal employment) within individuals is an even greater predictor of mental health and relationship quality than whether attitudes and behaviour are egalitarian or traditional.

Work on the MCS for this project has also shown that maternal gender attitudes explained gender differences in numerical and reading ability at age 7, in that these gender differences are concentrated in families in which mothers have more traditional attitudes towards gender roles. Traditional parental attitudes to gender roles were also significantly associated with more behavioural difficulties amongst children across the primary school years.