Life course perspectives suggest that later-life health reflects long-term social patterns over an individual’s life: in particular, the occurrence and timing of key roles and transitions. Such social patterns have been demonstrated empirically for multiple aspects of fertility and partnership histories, including timing of births and marriage, parity, and the presence and timing of a marital disruption. Most previous studies have, however, addressed particular aspects of fertility or partnership histories singly. We build on this research by examining how a holistic classification of family life course trajectories from ages 18 to 50, incorporating both fertility and partnership histories, is linked to later-life physical health for a sample of Australian residents. Our results indicate that long-term family life course trajectories are strongly linked to later-life health for men but only minimally for women. For men, family trajectories characterized by early family formation, no family formation, an early marital disruption, or high fertility are associated with poorer physical health. Among women, only those who experienced both a disrupted marital history and a high level of fertility were found to be in poorer health.
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Because education can overlap with the start of the family life course, it is possible that education mediates rather than confounds the association between family life course trajectory and later-life health. However, because education is a powerful predictor of health and is completed early in life for most respondents, it was considered preferable on balance to control for it. Excluding education from the models does not alter our findings.
Fertility histories are constructed retrospectively on the basis of respondent age, children’s age, children’s ages at death, and reported dates of marriages and marital disruptions. A small number of cases (32) were cleaned of implausibly high, low, and internally inconsistent values. Regarding the quality of the measures generally, Mayer (2008) argued that the quality of retrospective reporting is not systematically worse than concurrent reporting and depends on salience and the degree to which the details in question are embedded in biographical and relational structures, which can serve as recall aids. This suggests that reporting is likely good for current marriage and children’s ages but may be poorer for previous marriages, marital disruptions, and ages of children from previous relationships.
We imputed family life course trajectory group for cases with missing sequence data prior to fitting the growth models.
In particular, these substitution cost schemes fail to respect the natural ordering of states in the fertility and number of marital transitions channels. Furthermore, the alternative substitution cost schemes do not give any additional weight to the first instance of a given transition. This is significant for fertility, where it is reasonable to suggest that the distinction between no children and any children has some additional significance beyond differences in number of children.
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This article uses unit record data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey. The HILDA project was initiated and is funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services (DSS) and is managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (Melbourne Institute). The findings and views reported in this article, however, are those of the author and should not be attributed to either DSS or the Melbourne Institute. The authors wish to thank Melanie Spallek for assistance with R code for the sequence analysis, and Bill Martin and the anonymous reviewers at Demography for their insightful comments and criticism.
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O’Flaherty, M., Baxter, J., Haynes, M. et al. The Family Life Course and Health: Partnership, Fertility Histories, and Later-Life Physical Health Trajectories in Australia. Demography 53, 777–804 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-016-0478-6
- Life course
- Sequence analysis