Leaving school: how do work and family transitions affect women’s wealth and wellbeing later on?

How have the early adult lives of a generation of young women who grew up after the war impacted on their lives now? Baowen Xue and Anne McMunn from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL discuss two new papers which look at life satisfaction, mental health and economic wealth among older women. Their findings suggest early marriage and domestic labour are linked to worse outcomes later in life. 

The move out of education into work, marriage and parenthood is a sensitive time for young people and can set the course for their later lives. So which circumstances have turned out to be beneficial, and which have been less so?

We used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, ELSA, to look for answers to these questions. Our study followed a sample of over-50s who have been interviewed every two years since 2002. A Life history interview was conducted additionally to collect information about their  education, work and family lives.

We identified a group of almost 4,000 women born before 1956 who answered questions on life satisfaction and mental health, and in our second paper a smaller group of just under 1800 for whom income data was also available.

Our hypothesis as we set out on the research was that those who married and had children later, and who therefore tended to have stronger ties to work early on, would have better mental health in later life. This largely proved to be true, though remaining single was not the answer: this group tended to suffer from isolation and loneliness later in life.

We identified six types of transition from education into work and family life: Early marriage and domestic labour, later marriage and domestic labour, later marriage and later work entry, later marriage and early work entry, early work entry and remaining single, and a group whose experiences were mixed and included lone parenthood, marriage with or without children and a mixture of employment types.

Early motherhood and domestic labour

The key finding in our study was that women who took on motherhood and domestic labour at an early stage were more likely to suffer from depression and lower life satisfaction in later life than those who went to work early and married late. Those with mixed histories and those who stayed single and childless were also more vulnerable to poor mental health and low life satisfaction. But those who started work late – often through staying in education – and also married late had the highest life satisfaction and the lowest level of mental illness.

We found that these effects could by and large be linked to socioeconomic status: those from more privileged backgrounds tended to gain higher educational qualifications, to enter work later and to marry later, and that set them on a path to a better quality of life later on. Conversely, those from less privileged backgrounds tended to gain fewer qualifications, to marry earlier and to have a poorer quality of life later.

A second paper, also using ELSA data asked a linked question: how does leaving full-time education and becoming a home-maker at an early stage affect women’s economic wealth later in life?

We took the life histories of just under 1800 women born between 1939 and 1952, and looked at when they left education as well as how their entry into work affected their financial situation in later life. 

We found those who left education early and went straight into domestic roles were four times less likely than their more educated peers to be in the highest household wealth bracket in later life.

Women who started work between the ages of 21 and 24 were 40 per cent more likely to be in professional or managerial jobs than those who left school by age 16 and started work early. They were 53 per cent more likely to be in the top earnings bracket for women of their age and were almost four times more likely to be in the top bracket for total household wealth.

We concluded that the age at which women leave education plays a pivotal role in their later economic, personal and mental wellbeing. For the generation of women who are now pensioners, an early entry into domestic rather than paid labour cast a long shadow, while higher education conferred particular advantages. 

As higher education and later partnership have become the norm for today’s young women, these studies will form a baseline which will one day enable us to see whether their experiences compare or contrast with those of their grandmothers’ generation.

The Long Shadow of Youth: Girls’ Transition From Full-Time Education and Later-Life Subjective Well-Being in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing is research by Baowen Xue, Penny Tinkler and Anne McMunn and is published in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences

Girls’ transition to adulthood and their later life socio-economic attainment: Findings from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing is research by BaoWen Xue, Penny Tinkler, Paola Zaninotto and Anne Mc Munn and is published in Advances in Life Course Research.

Anne McMunn and BaoWen Xue are based at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health at UCL. Paola Zaninotto works with the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing at UCL and Penny Tinkler is based at the Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing.

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