Family-related life events

Insights from two Australian longitudinal studies
Research Report No. 22 – December 2012

1. Introduction

Life is a process of never-ending transition, entailing progression through identifiable maturational stages that in our society are commonly classified as: “infancy”, “toddlerhood”, “latency”, “adolescence” and “adulthood”. The latter period is sometimes also subdivided into “young adulthood”, “middle age” and “old age”. Other transitions occur within these maturational stages; for example, entering primary school, progressing to secondary school, leaving school and perhaps entering tertiary education. At some stage, most young men and women in Western society will obtain a job, with some entering part-time paid work while still at school, and with paid employment eventually taking over from study during young adulthood.

The achievement of these various milestones contribute to the timing of further transitions, including leaving the parental home (and possibly returning for a time at least), partnering, and perhaps separating and possibly re-partnering, becoming a parent, having further children, and retiring from work. Then there are possible transitions in housing associated with some of these changes, the commonly occurring change in employment circumstances for women when they become mothers, and changes in health status, especially in later life.

Of course, not everyone follows the traditional “life cycle” of leaving home, marrying, having and raising children, and together with their spouse watching the children move to independent living. For example, some people who have a child together have never been in a live-in relationship. In a 2008 study of 10,002 parents who had separated for an average of 15 months, 13% had never lived together when their child was born. Indeed, the diversity of pathways is perhaps better captured by the concept “life course”, which is more commonly used in relevant literature these days than “life cycle”.

Whatever the nature and sequencing of life course transitions, they also tend to change circumstances in multiple ways. For children, parental separation may mean spending time in a sole-parent family, a step-family, and possibly a so-called “blended family”, in which they share a biological bond with one parent and have a step-sibling in the household. Time spent with the other parent can vary greatly (from nil to equal time), and for some children, such time will often be shared with a non-resident step-parent and step-siblings. For the adults, such transitions entail transitions into sole parenting, “non-resident parenting” and/or step-parenting, although a substantial minority of non-resident parents rarely or never see their children (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2011a).

The timing and sequencing of some of the transitions, along with the circumstances that contribute to their occurrence, help shape their meaning and implications for wellbeing. For instance, teenagers who give birth to a child face very different circumstances and prospects as parents than those who become mothers when considerably older. The same, of course, applies to the experiences of their children. Likewise, separating from one’s partner will entail very different meanings and repercussions depending on such factors as the length of the relationship and whether any children have been born of the relationship.

Such transitions are often called “life events” because they entail demands for adjustment (Moloney, Weston, Qu, & Hayes, 2012). But these are not the only unsettling experiences that will inevitably occur in life. Other such experiences may represent the chain effects of previous life events (e.g., economic hardship after becoming a single mother), or they may occur more or less independently of them (e.g., so-called “natural disasters”, physical assaults, or accidents). And some may relate to other people, but have a profound impact on us nonetheless (e.g., a close friend experiencing a serious illness or injury, or an adult child marrying or separating from his or her spouse).

Some of these events, such as marriage and parenthood, are typically calls for celebration, while others may be seen as being largely detrimental; but in virtually all cases, the clouds will have their linings and the roses their thorns. As Moloney et al. (2012) pointed out, life events tend to unsettle us and entail some sense of loss associated with the relinquishment of the status quo. They therefore require adjustment. These adjustments may include changes in roles and routines, relationships, priorities, assumptions about ourselves and the world, and our sense of wellbeing. It also appears that the darkness of any clouds or sharpness of any thorns depend not only on the event itself, but on the interaction of such factors as the context in which the event occurs, the personal resources and vulnerabilities of those experiencing the event, and the way in which they appraise and deal with it.

The ways in which individuals interpret and handle life events can be influenced by, and have reverberating effects on, family members and friends. Indeed, some events may be seen as “family events”; for instance, partnership formation, marriage, childbirth, separation and divorce. So too may events apply directly to the children (e.g., entering school, becoming adolescents, leaving school, or leaving home) or to parents (e.g., commencing or leaving employment, or experiencing financial losses or windfalls). The notion of “work–family spill-over” highlights the fact that events directly affecting one person can have reverberating effects on the entire family. Such repercussions are captured in the song: “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”.1

Experiences of unsettling life events—whether as part of the normative aspects of the life course or as sudden and unexpected changes—are often triggers for contact with that fall within the portfolio of the Australian Government Department of Human Services (the department). Such services include Medicare, Centrelink and the Child Support. The department is in the process of undertaking a series of service delivery reforms aimed at significantly improving the effectiveness of services provided.

In order to guide the development of appropriate strategies that can be used by the agencies to help customers who are confronting (or may well confront) events that are having (or may have) deleterious effects, the department commissioned the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) to conduct a review of the literature on life events, including underlying theories, factors influencing their effects on families, and issues for survey delivery (see Moloney et al., 2012), and to undertake analyses of data based on two large-scale national longitudinal datasets that tap the experience of various life events: the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey and Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC). The analyses examine the prevalence of experiencing the different life events, characteristics of those most likely to experience the different events, their links with personal wellbeing. This document outlines the results of this work.

The life events examined are, of course, shaped by the information collected in the two studies. They include events relating to changes in relationship status or family composition, changes in employment or financial circumstances, and a range of other indicators of events that may be particularly relevant to individuals. Most, but not all, of the life events examined are those that could be considered to be negative, potentially causing declines in wellbeing among those affected.

Given the very different nature of these studies, the results of analyses of the HILDA and LSAC datasets are presented separately. Within each of these two broad sections, we first outline the prevalence of life events experienced and then explore the circumstances under which such experiences are particularly likely to occur. This provides some insight into triggers associated with the experiences of life events. The third set of analyses focuses on the apparent effects of such events on personal wellbeing (or levels of distress in the analyses based on LSAC). Key findings and implications emerging from these analyses are drawn together in the final section.


1 While Perry-Jenkins and Claxton (2011) mentioned this song specifically in relation to their discussion on the transition to parenthood, the message it conveys highlights how the unhappiness of a family member (regardless of its source) tends to resonate within families.