How is happiness distributed intergenerationally?

Angus Hanton sees happiness as a valuable benefit of intergenerational sharing

It is becoming fashionable to consider measures of happiness in formulating policy, but the essential pattern of happiness is well known. In general we are happiest as children when we have few worries, we are least happy while we are in our anxious twenties and while we are bringing up children, and we get happier again once the children leave home, according to the surveys. Shown on a graph, happiness is U-shaped – lowest in the middle and highest at the ends.

We also know from published studies that happiness is a relative matter: what makes people happy is not being wealthy as such, but being relatively wealthy – so that poorer communities don’t suffer particular unhappiness if they are all poor together. It is a level of inequality that is apparent to them which makes them unhappy.

Perhaps this explains why the younger generation in the UK is not as unhappy as it might be. As a group, those in their 20s tend to socialise together and Internet-based social networking may have intensified this tendency of younger age cohorts to interact with people of their own age.

This could mean that the housing problems faced by younger people, together with their employment challenges and the lack of pension provision, may worry them a lot less than one would expect – partly because they are “all in it together”, but also because they are less aware of how well their parents’ generation are doing, and even how well their parents were doing at the same age.

Grandparenting duties increase happiness for all generations

But positive intergenerational interaction is surely relevant here, and it helps all parties – grandparents look after their grandchildren a vast amount, which both helps the parents and typically makes everyone happier.

In a study by the insurer RIAS published late last year, it was suggested that the value of childcare given by grandparents is about £12 billion per year. In Wales, for example, average grandparents spend 13 hours a week looking after their grandchildren, and the survey shows that the trend throughout the UK has been sharply upward in recent years

Why is intergenerational help on the increase?

It looks as though the main drivers for this increase are twofold:

  • with people living longer and healthier lives, grandparents are more likely to be alive and well enough to be able to help out;
  • financial need means that more often both parents have to go out to work, at least for some of the week, and they are likely to be working longer hours, so grandparent support is especially helpful.

Add to this the fact that the alternative, payment-based childcare, must be made from after-tax income, and one can see that the grandparenting help has an extra value beyond the obvious commitment that comes from close relatives.

Older generation “taking with one hand and giving with the other…”

This raises the question of whether the baby-boomer generation has gained financially at the expense of young parents and many have found a practical way of trying to redress the balance.

It’s a rather “rough and ready” way to compensate young people for the challenges of high house prices, a difficult employment market and very unequal pension arrangements, but it is does have the virtue of increasing happiness levels for many people.

What is your experience of this phenomenon?

Posted on: 7 June, 2011