Transcript: Childhood influences on the wellbeing of the baby boomers

AIFS seminar: Childhood influences on the wellbeing of the baby boomers - 19 May 2015

Audio transcript (edited)

The following audio presentation is brought to you by the Australian Institute of Family Studies as part of our monthly seminar series in which we showcase national and international research related to the family. The seminars are designed to promote a forum for discussion and debate. They are open to the public and free of charge.

Seminar facilitated & speaker introduced by Dr Diana Warren.

Professor Hal Kendig

Okay, thank you for the introduction, Diana, and good to see that you're moving ahead with your research after bearing a couple of children and I see the same thing happening now with my grandchildren and so on. It's very good to be back in Melbourne after, well, in terms of any - much work, really a generation of change and the days when David de Vaus and I were here back in - and it's good to see David here. And thanks to Alan Hayes for inviting me along today. And I see a few familiar faces in the audience. I expect there are a lot more out there on the webinar so thank you for tuning in for that. How many of you in the audience have a primary focus on children in your research? How many would - for the webinar people a handful, a couple, handful. And how many have a strong focus across the life span? Fewer and a few equivocals.

And we'll do another straw poll. How many of you think that the next cohorts entering later life are going to be better or worse off than the current cohort entering? How many think they're going to be better off for the future ones? Okay. You should know that the Intergenerational Report out of The Treasury projects that real incomes are going to be increasing substantially in the future. It might not happen but that's their best guess and of course there's a different story in terms of wealth as we ask our children and grandchildren in terms of can everyone buy a house.

Okay so what I'm going to do is first of all - let's see, okay. Here's the range of people involved with our study. You'll see down at the bottom part there a very large group of investigators across ANU, Newcastle and Sydney and we're basically - this is now running through the ARC Centre of Excellence, in the website there. If you want to find out more about the study, go there. If you want to find of our recent pronouncements on the budget or the Intergenerational Report, look at some of the press releases there. We might have some discussion about that later. I especially want to acknowledge here Vanessa Loh who has been the mainstay of the study who is about to go off on her own journey of parenting and so she's not listed here to follow up on the - by email but my colleague Richard Loh is and I'm happy to follow up as well.

Okay so - and I'll also mention here, it's very important. It's terrific to see Janeen Baxter's new Centre of Excellence, ARC centre - everybody knows about that? On children and families through lifespan and we're hoping to see some connection between going backwards, old age, and Janeen and colleagues who're going forwards. Okay.  And I should also acknowledge our funders who are the Australian Research Council earlier with an ARC discovery grant that we had for the data collection and now for the Centre of Excellence for the analysis.

Okay now what I'm going to do is go over these topic areas, some big picture concepts and ideas. I'm aware that we have many ways of looking at these questions so we just want to see what the perspectives are. Our life history approach and why, the idea of pathways across the life course, different pathways and then parental quality and mental health which gets a little closer to some of the child interests. And then some implications and directions and I look forward to some discussion there. And I would say that many of you will have more knowledge and experience about the children who're looking forward and I welcome that and we should have a good discussion. And I'd also say that I think that we all have a responsibility to ensure that we do take lifespan approaches and we never get pitted into a competition between the young and the old or the present and the future and you can see how laden those comments are.

Okay now let's cover this first section. Big picture concepts and ideas and you see I've said here about looking forward from childhood and also looking backwards from later life. And the key thing about the social determinants approach is that it's not just the individual or the relationships. Were I a sociologist, I'd be talking about the context in which these interpersonal relationships occur. It's a structural context, it's a power relationship, it's a resource relationship, it's a set of expectations and attitudes. So this is the whole social determinants approach and the basic idea here is if you want to improve things, you don't just change people; you change the context in which they live their lives.

And most of the applications of the social determinants approach so far have been overwhelmingly in the area of health. There's no accident there, I can say we still live in a regime of funding which has a predominance of money for health research relative to other kinds of research and that shapes a lot of this. Michael Marmot, who started much of this, no accident Michael's a medical doctor, he thinks more widely. For those of you who know about the social determinants to health from the WHO, there's a lot of this work that's been put up.

And when I - well this whole start of the study here began when I went to visit Michael in London, met one of his colleagues, James Nazroo, and Michael was explaining to us that the whole future of social determinants was to act with children and for older people it was about comfort and care and started a conversation and it ended up in the social determinants across lifespan study. So that whole area. And I just refer people to Fran Baum's excellent work at Flinders in the area, a new book out by Toni Schofield at Sydney on social determinants, a few more abstracts. Sociology, go to Thomas Piketty's work out of Paris.

What's crucial to the whole question here is idea of human capital. So governments, we think, got to be concerned with not only investing in pipes and roads but also in human capital. That's where the big returns are. So Vanessa and I wrote a paper about that where we looked at contributions over the age groups, cross-cut stuff out of HILDA, but it shows that there's great potential contributions beyond the paid workforce, as we call it in our title, and how that might be maximised.

A key concept here, one to which I dearly hold to heart, is the idea of accumulation of inequality over the life course. The person who's really named that well is a colleague, Dale Dannefer. And it says it's not just young and old and it's not just through the life course. It's the life course is an engine for the generation of advantage or disadvantage over time. And that is a powerful idea, I think it's a very powerful social - addressing social inequalities and it's one, which I intend to increasingly prosecute over the year’s head.

Okay and this last point here is I think very important. We want a deep response to the Intergenerational Report. Everybody knows about the Intergenerational Report launched recently, some of you are smiling knowingly. Joe Hockey gave a great presentation on his point of view on what is his report, rather than the Treasury report, and it's really the government's report and it has a lot to say about the budget although the report is supposed to be about projections, not predictions, projections, to mid-century. So we think that this research of ours is going to make a contribution to this public policy debate and in particular, when you look at the report, it talks about the core things about what will determine outcomes. It's mainly fiscal but they're societal and the workforce as well.

The main thing that's going to determine outcomes is population. Not a whole lot we do about this bit can be changed. About labour force participation. We're starting to see that maybe older workers can be valued. And also about productivity and productivity is the one that's fallen off the agenda. Too hard, too obscure and human capital is all about increasing productivity and therefore the economy, therefore government sustainability and therefore investing in human capital over the lifespan from children through to people about to retire and into retirement is going to be crucial for the economic future of Australia.

Okay so now I want to make a bit of an argument here for why we want to take a life history approach. It's very difficult to do in terms of evidence because we have few studies that last as long as a lifetime. There are going to be a few studies - everybody knows about Margot Prior temperament study? Well one of these days I'm going to have to talk to Margot about doesn't she want to make this into an ageing study now and how does temperament early on relate to outcomes as one goes through life. It's a big question, this idea of temperament or personality or whatever you want to call it.

Basically it's hard to do but we all know the arguments that want to do this. It's basically the idea of a whole of life approach. Our study is just about the front end of the baby boom, people who in 1911 - 2011/12 were 60 to 64 and we chose our group strategically because they're the front end of the Australian baby boom and they're about to go through some of the retirement transitions. And also for those of you who are researchers, we wanted a fairly tightly banding of the age groups and the cohort exposures in order to identify variability due to socio-economic and family status through those periods so it's really a little slice of one cohort. And the cohorts are very different and we really have to take into account much of these findings are cohort bound.

The idea of critical exposures, that's where a lot of it is cohort specific, isn't it? These baby boomers who're at the front end of the great future that was ahead for Australia, it was going to be a world good enough for the returned veterans and of course this is about men but also their families and their children and suburbia and so forth. And the baby boom cohort, you know, the pig in the python all the way through the demographic periods, childhoods in the 50s, early adults, coming of age when Australia was changing so much in the 60s and 70s, women were allowed to go back into the workforce after having children after that, some were allowed to have education even before that. And so on through the late 80s and early 90s when many workers, ageing workers, were in effect thrown on the scrap heap due to structural change in the workforce et cetera and that has a lingering effect on the very old ones today and so it goes.

Our comparisons with England, and James Nazroo is helping us - is leading this part. Everybody know the ELSA, English Longitudinal Survey on Ageing? ELSA had a life history component which we have built on in our study and that enables us to look at what is the structural context of one society as compared to another. In England the post-war economic gain was later, some of the policies came earlier, and through those comparisons we see some things. Some of the earlier parts of the comparative analysis, and I'll mention this as sort of a quip so this is not to be cited or anything, but it does appear that when we compare in particular English people who have migrated to Australia and how they compare to the English who have stayed back in England, it's a bit of a natural experiment, they seem to adapt a bit towards Australian ways. And one of the things that do appear in the early results is that Australian ways of life were a bit more adventurous in various ways, for better or worse, notwithstanding pulling down the seat belts early. And it's really quite interesting and what we're doing is we're going to have a broader study across other countries.

Now the researcher in me says we've got to take into account these limitations and the sample bias, many of the people who're most disadvantaged don't even make it to later life and all sorts of selectivity effects. Some groups are so small we can't analyse them and they're so hard to find and in particular we mention the very limited coverage of Aboriginal ageing and Aboriginal older people. I would make a comment here, an editorial, and that is I've learned even if we don't have very good approaches to these questions, in generic surveys we should always try to include ageing Aboriginal people because otherwise they always get left out and better some coverage than inadequate carefully qualified coverage.

The big question is accuracy of recall. Who here accurately remembers how your parents treated you when you were a young child? David shakes his head. Okay.  We'll talk about that a little bit later but the recall bias, generally if it's more objective, you have a better chance of getting something that would probably have some credible relationship to what actually happened. Very important the contextual. We did this survey just after the Global Financial Crisis and we had an article about that which will be in the reference list and how that might've changed things. People's expectations for ageing changed enormously as Diana is noting. Knows I should say.

Okay so that's the contextual and that's very much as societal as the social determinants part about how a life history study gets out some of those questions. Now our survey, I'll go lightly over this, we have a reference here to our fieldwork and our methodology. Those of you who are researchers, I'd suggest you might want to have a look at this article, but basically it's a sub-study of the 45 and Up Study, a huge cohort study run out of New South Wales. It's again this front end of the baby boom cohort. There are three ways of collecting data. The original baseline survey, the follow-up self-completion survey, the sub-sample of those, and then a telephone follow-up with Caddy. Does AIFS still have a strong Caddy system? You outsource. Well we're in a different era. New cohort of research, this is right, okay. Okay so that's basically what the study was and it was intricate, it was complex and thanks especially to Vanessa Loh and our colleagues at Newcastle for managing much of this through and again the methodology is there.

Now let's start with childhood exposures and later life wellbeing. This is more of the social determinants so we've got two little sub-studies that I'm going to report on today. The social determinants work led by Vanessa, and I'll talk more about that in a minute, and then after this the psychological approach which is more led by Richard Burns. Actually they're both psychologists. In my experience I find that psychologists who are sensitive to social issues bring a rigor that sometimes sociologists have to work on and that's why I value them to complement and dare I say compensate for some of my numerical skills or not. So Vanessa and Richard.

Okay, what we're - and this study is in press. It's in press in a special issue of a journal that James Nazroo and I are editing, the Journal of Population Ageing, and it has articles from a life history point of view looking at social inequalities across a range of countries including Germany, England, the United States and Australia so we get a bit of a societal context for looking at these issues. And I have the reference there but it's not going to be out for a while and I don't want to put the specific findings up there because it's not yet published.

But here's the basic framework for our thinking on this and that is that we have a series of childhood exposures and I would call these as indicators. I guess people out there in the webinar aren't going to be able to see this until they actually see the overheads but they're childhood exposures about socio-economic status and these are indicators. For example how many bookshelves of books did you have when you were growing up, when you left school, childhood health, okay. Adult exposures, your highest education obtained, your most significant job, income, and adult health. Those are sort of the midlife measures of where one is.

Wellbeing outcomes. Now there are two of them here, which are termed here. How many of you are psychologists here? Okay so some of you may wish to go into further eudemonic and hegemonic measures of wellbeing and see if that clarifies or obscures our understandings and - but basically my summary for a broader audience is, broadly, quality of life is a measure of psychological wellbeing. It's about your - for example your self-realisation, okay, that life satisfaction is more emotional and global evaluation of your life, possibly more of a trait characteristic, but I'll stop there. And so these are basically our measures and again it will be coming out in the special issue we hope later this year depending on how quickly our authors work.

Okay now some of the analyses and main findings and again thanks to Vanessa. Okay.  That top couple of lines, for those of you only listening to this, it's a full mediation model with lots of controls for age, gender and marital status et cetera. The effects I'm going to summarise now are small but significant and the world is complicated so we do expect probably small effects. Okay so some of the main finding here are that childhood matters. So even your reports on childhood matter for wellbeing outcomes as one enters later life, the 60 to 64 groups. It's the long-term effects and there are different ways that it's affected; there's an accumulation model. In other words, if one looks at the kinds of - this is the negative accumulations. The various life insults we all have to live with from childhood all the way through our midlife, that they add up, and the more negative effects accumulating, the more the negative effect on wellbeing outcomes.

There's also the idea of a critical period and for this analysis childhood does emerge strongly as a critical period, it pre-disposes directions. And there also are pathway models which means that people go through different pathways and earlier ones pre-dispose but they do not totally determine where you go later. Rough summary. Now the childhood exposures seem to matter more for quality of life and for life satisfaction and that means that basically your ideas of 
self-esteem, self-realisation, that seems to go back more to one's core childhood experiences than does the life satisfaction areas and we can talk about that at some point.

But I think the main conclusion here is that even with all the difficulties of retrospective analysis across decades and for this particular cohort et cetera, we do find results with some fairly rigorous statistical controls. This is more than correlations, this is controlling for a lot of things that basically the early investments matter. They matter for later in life. And if we were planning on what to do for 2050 when the intergeneration report is supposedly to, we'd want to be investing now and over the last couple of decades in children but again, it's complicated. The other important point here is it's not all pre-determined, that people can in surprising ways catch up or fall off the perch as they move through life, these complex pathways. Implications of that we'll discuss a little bit later.

Okay now the second study I'll mention is led by Richard Burns. Richard is at our Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing. He allowed me to put his email down here and so those of you who are particularly interested in this, please get in touch with Richard directly. He knows much more about what I'm going to say now than I do and it's a great dialogue between a psychologist and a sociologist in the context of this life history study. It's the same life history study. Our measures are the quality of self-reported parenting and childhood, more about that in a minute, and the outcomes are current depression. That's when people are 60 to 64, their depression then but also their, had they ever, substantial depression through adulthood, substantial anxiety. And fairly strict cut-offs for that too. You know basically - I say with a smile for those of you who can't see me, these are gold standard doctor diagnosed. In other words they're severe enough for a person in a position to do so to go to a doctor and get told that he's depressed or if she is depressed or anxious and even to be treated as well. So fairly strict criteria.

Richard, as a rigorous psychologist, has a little theoretical model here about parental bonding we think will influence mental health by these two measures and I'll say a little bit more about the parent bonding instrument. Do people know about the parental bonding instrument, you know? You might have some comments, you know more about it than I do probably. Okay and then what Richard did, he made a more complex model, which shows here that parental bonding in fact on mental health could be affected by current mood. And so he did some exploratory analyses and found out yes it was significant and so he used the correct for current mood by this CASP measure of control, autonomy, self-realisation and pleasure. Basically what I said earlier with the study with Vanessa. So he controlled for that and I'll tell you about those findings and we had the same outcomes here.

So this is the basis for the analysis that we're going to do and Richard has applied some very rigorous controls and again saying that what people - how people see their past varies depending upon their current state a fair bit and I give an example about a study that David de Vaus, Yvonne Wells and I did on retirement. We had a couple of measures about wellbeing through retirement. One was to compare their self-reported state before and their self-reported state afterwards. We didn't see major change there but when we looked at retrospective accounts from the time to after retirement, they were much more positive, weren't they? And I don't think that's an accident.

I think that's not a methodological error, I think that's a significant finding. Namely part of healthy ageing and ageing well and wellbeing involves one's making sense of, if not necessarily reconstructing one's past, the idea of life review. How do we make sense of it all? It's quite a job really. And so that's part of the introduction to this about we have to take into account people's current emotional states. But I'd say that these are real. This is a real effect and one has to untangle that. Okay, a bit complicated. Good.

Now I'll go quickly through this, especially for you poor people who can't see it, but this is basically a series of - these are a couple of figures which show on the left side various measures of parenting, negativity, mother caring, father, mother overprotective, which we'll see is an important part of the story, father overprotective and these outcomes. I'm not going to go into that more. But suffice to say that this story from - in all of our analyses of ageing I believe we have to have the his and her stories as well as the their stories, the different genders, often quite different signs of effects, but certainly magnitudes. And there is, dare I say, often a couple or a pair of some dimension there, let alone the other complexities and I'll throw it in. Lineage effects and family effects, network effects or whatever. Life is complicated, okay.

But for men - often in these analyses for men it's a relatively simpler story than for women but suffice to say that for men, there is an effect of their evaluation of their parental experience but not a whole lot more after that. It's fairly straightforward and it doesn't change after you take into account their current mood, in other words - okay. So now for women, it's a more complex story. You'll see that in contrast to the men on this figure, there are a fair number of asterisks which means significant findings and these are significant after taking into account these controls for current mood and other effects.

And I think the two of the most - well the most interesting one, which in this short story I’ll go into, is the measure of mothers who are overprotective. And what is the effect of an overprotective mother on women? You're more likely to be currently depressed, you're more likely to be ever depressed through adulthood and you're more likely to be ever anxious through adulthood. That's a description of some empirical findings and one has to make sense of these things. And this all remains significant after we adjust for current mood so we can look through the current mood and see this is a report at earlier life experience. 

So what do we make of all this? These are small effects substantively but they're all statistically significant after controls and so I think it's quite strong evidence that parental experience matters, note the gender differences and for women current effects are more. And the question here is what does it mean? Those of you who are mothers, dare I say those of us who are parents, will always wonder, "Did we do too much or did we do too little?" And these findings suggest that at least in terms of the memories of our children as they approach later life, a fair number felt that we were being overly protective and what does that mean and it has negative associations anyway with depression and anxiety.

Now I'm going to start to wind up some conclusions, implications and conclusions, because I do want to allow lots of time for discussion and we can make sense of this but I'll go into a little bit more some of the implications and directions here. I'm trying to argue or we are trying to argue for the value of a lifespan approach which is historically and socially situated, that they can work out the contextual, and can I say how in some ways intellectually embarrassed I am that the field of gerontology seems to think that people spring into research focus at the age of 65 or 60. The big innovations back in the 80s and some of the reviews I did of where the field ought to go talked about going from the midlife onwards and looking at historical context for things like housing.

How can you understand wealth without historical context, without an earlier life experience? There's a whole body of 
so-called knowledge out there which is empty of knowledge in these respects so we need the lifespan and historical and dare I say social change approach to these analyses. This gets much more complicated than what we're talking about today. The indicative evidence that early childhood investments pay off and they matter in terms of early childhood health, early childhood education as well as socio-economic security and we have more to do there looking at the social status and wellbeing of the parents as well as the children.

Now in terms of the effects of marital formation and separation through adulthood, we haven't looked at it very much through this analysis. It's simply one of the negative shocks that we have accumulating through midlife but that's one that we can take a look at through the life history approach where we know what's happening to these people in broad terms, in terms of their family, their work and other aspects of their life each year from age 18 onward to the time of the survey. So lots of potential there and we've got lots of studies that are taking in that work-family balance further. I must say I find it kind of strange to hear people talk about a work-life balance as though work were not part of life for many of us. Okay.

Now the prospects of the future I think are really important to think about. Remember the findings that we are reporting now are very much historically located and we're interpreting them in a very historically specific context and we're looking at things like the intergovernmental report from the point of view of what Joe Hockey is doing and announcing in budgets and so on right now. But what I would say the questions here are, are real incomes really going to rise over the coming decades? And again, how many of you believe they're not going to? How many believe they will? Amazing. That was one finger raised, is that right?

But interestingly, the Intergenerational Report put out by the Treasurer and the technical work done by Treasury, and I said that very carefully, project rising real incomes. And if that happens, that means the current cohort of older people are being disadvantaged relative to the cohorts that are in ascendancy who are coming on more. So things like indexation of the aged pension, which we've been talking about lately. If you index it by CPI instead of average weekly earnings, what that does, it's a very substantial longer term effect in reducing the real incomes of older people relative to younger ones. Thankfully that's been overturned it seems. I won't go into that now. There are some - if you go to the CPI website, you'll see some comments on that but we don't really know. But in terms of wealth, at least now, at least probably for a decade or two, the older cohort is relatively advantaged in terms of accumulated wealth through the housing boom of the 80s and a little bit into the 90s and relative to our children. And the biggest effect I would say - okay.

Now accumulating inequalities. One of the biggest values I think of a lifespan approach is to show how through the lifespan some people accumulate, some people never get started, whether that be economically, whether that be psychosocial consequences, whether it be relationships and so forth. There's a huge difference and so the divergence through the lifespan and what determines that. And it gets even more complex as some of you know probably better than I do, the idea of multiple disadvantage through lineages, the sort of label of multi-problem families through the generation and how it compounds from the parents to the children and so forth. Analytically that's just so important. You have the idea of cycles of poverty or cycles of disadvantage and how can we address those and break out of them. Our data doesn't inform that very well, the hard and tractable concerns, as we're saying here.

And the last one is - if I haven't done a bit of preaching already, I'll stand up here at this pulpit here at AIFS and say that I do - and I'll read it out so that others can hear. There's a question about the moral integrity of a social inclusion, approach and a need resident age approach as guiding principles, if we're looking at inequality through policies and socially. And just to say the shadow side of seeing those poor dear old people is the ageism, that we don't expect very much of you. And there are some shadows, some remnants of that for younger people too, these poor young people et cetera and there's a real case for a lot of that so I'm not denigrating that. But we cannot expect - I think we have to look very carefully at the idea of need, resident age as the principles and another study of ours looking at attitudes towards age.

The Australian electorate, at least with the last round of the study back in 2010 and 11, showed a very sympathetic view of the needs of older people which you can interpret as a potentially patronising view and means for getting more than their fair share. So I leave that with you and I'll just say we're also replicating that survey right now nationally and we're going to see if it's changed over the time. Maybe we'll pull some other people, David, to help us with some of this analysis. Okay, that's it from me.

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