Family, work and quality of life: changing economic and social roles

Project lead: Ms Maria Evandrou

Research team

  • Ms Maria Evandrou

  • Dr Karen Glaser

  • Dr Ursula Henz


April 2000 - March 2002


Ms Maria Evandrou
Age Concern Institute of Gerontology
King’s College London
Franklin-Wilkins Building
150 Stamford Street
London SE1 8WA

Tel: +44 (0)207 848 3038


Individuals undertake a variety of roles within work and family life. The combination of work and family roles among those in middle and later adulthood is of particular interest as socio-economic and demographic changes, such as rising female labour force participation, increases in longevity, and rises in the age at which children leave home, are likely to create additional roles.

Rising longevity will increase the proportions of middle-generation adults with living parents, potentially increasing the need for the provision of care to frail elderly parents. Caring responsibilities may also expand to include adult children as well as older parents. This reflects rises in both the age of leaving home and the numbers of adult children returning home, which is in part a result of greater enrolment in higher education and rising divorce rates.

Increases in divorce may also affect the support patterns of mid-life men and women themselves, as fewer individuals are likely to have a spouse to provide assistance in their own old age. Divorce and remarriage also have implications for the additional roles and ties people manage; for example, a mother remains linked to her ex-in-laws through her children as well as to her current in-laws through her spouse.

The international literature indicates that the effects of multiple role occupancy can be positive (‘role enhancement’ hypothesis) or negative (‘role overload’ model). Studies have tended to focus on women. In Britain, this reflects not only rises in female labour force participation but also the changing policy context. Changes in community care legislation, particularly over the last decade, have shifted the emphasis of the responsibility of care towards the community, which in turn has intensified the demands placed upon women. However, it is also important to examine the assumption of multiple roles amongst men.

There has been little research in Britain on the extent of multiple roles among mid-life women and men, and little examination of variations in multiple role occupancy over time, comparing differences across cohorts. The project will inform debate on how policy can best aid individuals such as carers and those endeavouring to balance paid work, family life and caring responsibilities.

Aims and objectives

This project aims to investigate the complex inter-relationships between the multiple roles of mid-life individuals, focusing on work and family commitments, and how these may affect quality of life in old age. The project will investigate:

  • The extent to which men and women in mid-life (e.g. 45-59/64years) undertake a multiplicity of roles within work and family spheres.

  • How multiple roles in mid-life are associated with health and material resources.

  • How changes in life course events, such as rising female employment and divorce, affect the assumption of social and economic roles across birth cohorts.

  • What the likely effects of these multiple roles in mid-life are on measures of quality of life and well-being (health and material resources) in later life.

Study design

The project is based upon secondary analysis of large scale data sets, in particular: the Family and Working Lives Survey (FWLS) (1994-95), the Retirement and Retirement Plans Survey (RS) (1988/89 and 1994), and the General Household Survey (GHS) (1985, 1990, 1995). The research questions will be investigated using a variety of analytical techniques including: bi-variate and multi-variate analysis of cross-sectional data; cohort analysis from a time series of cross-sections; and multi-level modelling using longitudinal data.

Policy implications

The findings of the project will inform policy discussion in a number of key areas. The management of multiple social roles in mid-life can impact upon quality of life in old age via both the accumulation of pension entitlements and its effect on health status. For example, fewer years in paid work can jeopardise the ability of individuals such as carers, to meet the requirements placed upon entitlement and consequently may lead to low income in retirement. The project will explore the extent to which shorter working lives will place some of these persons on such income trajectories in their own old age. The effect of multiple social roles on the physical health of individuals currently, but also in their later life, has implications for long-term care: both in terms of family care and also the ability to purchase care, either through insurance or other payment mechanisms (such as charging).

It is important to explore how family-friendly policies and practices can support people with multiple social and economic roles. Little is known of the coverage, content and use of workplace practices in Britain. Who are the key stakeholders and who bears the cost? The research project will discuss working models of such employment practices in other EU countries (e.g. Sweden) and outline useful lessons for Britain. An international review of alternative work-based policies and practices will provide a useful context within which to discuss the project’s findings with representatives outside the research community at organised workshops.