American parents report being 12% less happy than non-parents

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The question as to whether or not to have kids will come up for many during the course of their lives. A child could provide its parents with purpose and fulfillment. But a child born in today’s America also comes with a huge price tag; from daycare through college. American parents receive minimal state assistance compared to their counterparts in other industrialized nations and the stress of modern parenting is compounding that impact -- the average parent now reports being 12% less happy than non-parents. Should we rethink our position on whether or not to have kids?  

For millennia, having a large family was an asset but today, with parents shouldering the burden of supporting their offspring from day care through college - children have gone from economic assets to extreme economic liabilities. 

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Jennifer Glass, Professor in the Department of Sociology & Population Research Center at the University of Texas about falling fertility rates, the happiness gap and the moral and societal impacts on whether or not to have children. 

Glass explains that it’s the stress of juggling work and family life, the pressure to be the best parent and the financial burdens that are taking their toll. Though the majority of parents will say their kids have made them happier, her research suggests that it’s not entirely true.  

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.  

KCRW: We have this notion that we want two or maybe three kids and that having children will make us happier but does this boil down to finances, about what we want versus what we ultimately are able to afford. 

Jennifer Glass: “What worries me is that we've created a new social compact. I’ll use the words of the MacArthur Genius, Nancy Fulbright who wrote that this new social compact is one in which the costs of children are privatized but the benefits of children are socialized. 

Individual parents are expected to assume all of the costs of the dependency period of childhood and early adulthood; all of the costs of housing them, all the costs of their medical care, all the cost of their education and training, except, for those periods of time when they're in public schools but oftentimes you need after school care or after school assistance even when your kids are enrolled in public school. So that’s the nature of the problem. All the costs have been privatized to parents. 

But once that young person is educated and trained and capable of renting an apartment, getting a partner and living outside of their parents home, who gets the benefits? Well, the benefits have been socialized; an employer gets this great employee who's been educated and trained by someone else's dollars, our tax base gets a nice big income tax off of that person and then there’s another payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare. All of that money is going to be dispersed both to people who had children and people who never had children. So the benefits are socialized, the costs are privatized - that's where we are right now. 

And that's why we're so nervous about systems like Social Security and Medicare, that rely on a birth cohort to contribute to support their parents' cohort in old age. So the benefits are no longer within a family - the benefits go across large cohorts of citizens in a country.”

KCRW: We are left to believe in America that having kids will be the most meaningful and arguably the happiest period of our lives and we all need to embrace parenthood. What if you don’t? What did your research find? 

Glass: “I believe all of those things. I'm a parent, I think it's the best thing that I ever did. I love my children and I believe that they brought me great happiness. And I'm very much American in that way of thinking. But it's not true. All the survey research that's been conducted really for about the past 40 years, has shown that there's absolutely a tremendous amount of life meaning to be gotten from parenthood. But if you look at people's day to day existence, or at their long or short term assessment of how they're doing in life, you will see that they report having more trouble than people who don't have children. 

I tell my students that the difference between having a child-free existence and becoming a parent is the difference between having a kind of boring flat life - if you don't have children versus having this kind of roller coaster, Kaleidoscopes of  ups and downs. The highs are extremely high and the lows are extremely low, as any parent can tell you who had a child with a disability or a serious illness. So the reason that parenthood can be stressful is precisely because we love our children so much and we care so much about their well being. So that brings both positive but it also brings great negative emotions and feelings. 

And we also need to pay attention to how parenthood is affected by the economic changes. How we make a living and how we distribute resources -it's more difficult for people to feel that they can get married because they feel such economic instability and such grotesque wealth inequality across households. The increase in non-marital childbearing is something that we see all over the industrialized West and we're starting to see it in East Asia as well. When people don't feel secure in their jobs, they're less likely to feel more stable partnerships and much less likely to plan for their pregnancies, for example, so when children happen in the United States, half are not planned at the time of conception. All of these things are interrelated, the economics of this is kind of the bedrock for a series of family changes that have also made it harder to undertake parenthood and to feel like you're doing a good job.

The other significant factor in all of this is that in order to have a healthy population and a healthy economy you can't reduce the number of children and let the number of elderly balloon.   And if you don't believe me just look at Japan. 

When I was growing up we were so afraid of Japan; Japan was building everything and they were doing a good job. They were going to out compete the United States and we were in big trouble. Nobody says that today? The reason is that Japan has rapidly aged and they have one of the lowest birth rates in the world. They did not respond to this well by incorporating any elements of women's empowerment, to encourage mothers to be in the paid labor force and they have this huge industry of extra school schooling that you have to pay for to get your kid into the most competitive secondary schools and colleges. 

As a result, Japan has this elderly population, very few young people, and many schools. It is difficult to find housing that's affordable in Japanese cities and there are many, many elderly people who live far apart now from their grown children. So Japan has basically been moribund since the 1990s and is no longer seen as a huge economic threat to the United States or anybody else. 

That might be the way China goes in another 20 years. Russia is showing all signs of the same trajectory as Japan with a rapid population drop.. The last time I was in Russia was six years ago, and I was stunned at the number of large empty apartment buildings in the suburban rings on the outside of Moscow. They were built in the 60s, mostly to house workers but the population had fallen so much in urban areas that they now sit as these empty hulking symbols of population decline.”

KCRW: The long term economic benefits to society are not something we typically think about when we decide whether or not to have kids?

Glass: “We're a very individualistic nation. So what I tell people who want to remain childless is, that's fine but you need to understand that when you are 60, you're going to need a dentist and you're going to need a doctor and a lawyer. But you're also going to need someone to pick up your garbage. And you're going to need someone to visit you with Meals on Wheels when you get elderly and you're going to need somebody who writes the news and puts it on the radio. And all those people are going to be younger than you. They were educated and trained on their parents money and you get to benefit from that. So yes, it is a collective problem, we have privatized the cost but socialized all the benefits of parenthood.”

KCRW: what does your research tell us about people who have gone through life without having kids. Are they happy? Did they live fulfilling lives without kids?

Glass: “Yes, but I must put into place the big caveat, only if the rest of their life circumstances are the same, that is to say people from the same income bracket. If you're partnered, you're also partnered without kids as opposed to with kids. So when you do an apples to apples comparison, and you look at women post the 55 -60 population, there is no difference in happiness. 

We know this in part from other scholars, particularly psychologists who study family relationships in later life and they will tell you that not everybody has a real happy relationship with their adult children. Increasingly in advanced industrialized societies, there are a lot of tensions between adult children and their elderly parents. You know, someone was Hitler's Mother, and there are some kids who are very loving and attentive and maintain intergenerational bonds but there are other children that live far away and don't have strong feelings about their parents or have moved on and are more involved in other things. 

So children can bring great joy and happiness, but they can also bring alienation and distance. So on average, what we see is that the presence of children or not makes very little difference. It's not that you're less happy, it's just that you're no more happy than if you never had those children at all. Now, these are averages and of course, I can't predict what's going to happen in any individual situation but that's what the data  suggests.”



  • Jennifer Glass - Professor and Executive Director of the Council on Contemporary Families at the Department of Sociology & Population Research Center at the University of Texas - @UTAustinSoc


Andrea Brody