Group Finds Working Parents in U.S. Less Happy Than Nonparents

In a briefing paper for the Council on Contemporary Families, researchers found a big “happiness gap” between working parents in the U.S. and their childless counterparts—a gap that is smaller, nonexistent, or even reversed in other countries that offer more family-friendly social policies.

The 1996 rom-com flick, One Fine Day, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney, showcased the predicament of working parents. Through a series of exaggerated situations, the film seemed to send the message that working parents are attempting the impossible.

A recently released briefing paper for the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) seems to imply that combining work and family in America is—if not impossible—at the very least making everyone unhappy.

In the paper, the researchers wrote: “Our results indicate that the parental ‘happiness penalty’ varies substantially from country to country, and is not an inevitable accompaniment of contemporary family life. … The bad news is that of the 22 countries we studied, the U.S. has the largest happiness shortfall among parents compared to nonparents, significantly larger than the gap found in Great Britain and Australia.”

And in Nordic countries, such as Norway, Sweden, and Finland, parents report higher levels of happiness than their child-free equivalents.

The group of researchers, led by Jennifer Glass, the executive director of CCF and a sociology professor at the University of Texas, wanted to find the reasons behind this disparity of happiness.

“The negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations,” according to the paper. “And this was true for both mothers and fathers. Countries with better family policy ‘packages’ had no happiness gap between parents and nonparents.”

So, what are those social policies that could help bridge the happiness gap?

“There needs to be a consistent policy package that addresses the different needs at the different stages,” Glass said.

She noted that right now, there is a lot of good discussion around paid parental leave in the U.S., but she said that CCF research finds that it’s not enough. Paid parental leave should be part of “a constellation of policies,” Glass said, along with perhaps paid sick leave and vacation days, subsidized childcare for pre-k children, and work-schedule flexibility offered to those with dependent children.

Another interesting finding was that family-friendly social policies don’t just benefit parents, but rather they promote the happiness of society at large.

“The policies that helped parents the most were policies that also improved the happiness of everyone in that country, whether they had children or not. Policies such as guaranteed minimum paid sick and vacation days make everyone happier, but they had an extra happiness bonus for parents of minor children,” according to the brief.

“I’m always hoping that [research like this] will augment the conversation we’re already having,” Glass said of the study, which will be published in September’s American Journal of Sociology.


Emily Bratcher

By Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a Contributing Editor for Associations Now. MORE

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