Family-related life events

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

Executive summary

Experiences of events that create demands for adjustment, such as the formation of relationships, separation, pregnancy or childbirth, and serious personal injury or illness (called “life events”) may well trigger contact with services that fall within the portfolio of the Australian Government Department of Human Services (the department). Such services include Medicare, Centrelink and Child Support. The department is undertaking a series of service delivery reforms, and commissioned the Australian Institute of Family Studies to conduct research to inform this process. This research entailed: (a) a review of the literature on life events (Moloney, Weston, Qu & Hayes, 2012), and (b) assessment of the prevalence of different life events and links between life event experiences and personal wellbeing. The present report outlines the results of the latter component.

Data and analyses

The analyses were 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). HILDA provides a broad population view, with respondents including men and women aged from 15 years on. In contrast, LSAC focuses exclusively on families with young children. Unlike HILDA respondents, LSAC respondents who were living with a partner (in most cases the child’s father) were asked to indicate the life events that they or their partner had experienced.

The list of life events reported on in each study differs somewhat, although both capture life events relating to family and relationship changes (for example, couple formation, separation, and births), illness or injury to self or close friends or relatives, the death of a close friend or relative, a major worsening of financial circumstances, loss of paid work, and moving house.

Three key issues were examined:

  • the prevalence of different life event experiences in the previous 12 months (based on information collected in 2010 for both studies);
  • personal and family characteristics of those most likely to subsequently experience the different types of events examined (for this analysis, personal and family characteristics were derived from the previous survey wave of each study—conducted in 2009 for HILDA and 2008 for LSAC); and
  • links between such experiences on personal wellbeing.

Prevalence of life events experiences within 12 months

Overall, a higher percentage of LSAC than HILDA respondents indicated that at least one of the events listed had been experienced in the previous 12 months. This was likely to be the result of the different nature of the two samples and set of life events in these studies, along with the fact that partnered respondents in LSAC referred to life events that they or their partners experienced.

Despite these differences, relatively common life events in each study included changing residence, having an illness or injury occur to a close relative, having a close friend or other relative die, and suffering a serious personal injury or illness.

Given the limited timeframe examined (12 months), many of the life events that were explored were quite uncommon across the entire populations of the two surveys.

Characteristics associated with experience of life events

The results highlighted some of the characteristics of individuals and families at considerable risk of experiencing certain life events—experiences that may lead them to seek additional services or supports from the Australian Government Department of Human Services. For example:

  • Cohabiting couples were more likely than their married counterparts to experience separation (and also re-partnering). Cohabiting couples were also more likely than married couples to experience pregnancy or childbirth.
  • The experiences of some events also varied according to socio-economic status, with those with relatively low socio-economic status being more likely than others to report relationship status changes, loss of paid work, a major worsening of financial circumstances, and moving house. Some of these experiences were also linked with being a young parent and with regional location.
  • Although some events are especially likely to occur at certain ages, the likelihood of experiencing others—such as the serious illness or injury of a family member—varied little across age groups.

Life events and personal wellbeing

Two key findings emerged:

  • those who experienced certain life events tended to have lower wellbeing prior to the life event occurring; and
  • experiences of some of these life events were associated with further declines in wellbeing, such as financial crises, relationship separation and being a victim of physical violence.

It is therefore not surprising that the experience of multiple life events was associated with declines in wellbeing from an already relatively low base.

Such experiences should be viewed in the broader context of other important circumstances affecting the wellbeing of individuals and families. For example, wellbeing tended to be lower for single-parent families and those experiencing financial disadvantage. Put another way, adverse life events can be an important signal of need for assistance, but the events themselves may be the culmination of an extended negative process that needs to be addressed.

The results provide a basis for targeting services to those who are more likely to be placed at risk as a result of the load of life events that may befall them. As such, prevention and early intervention efforts are best targeted and tailored to those most at risk.