When Happiness Is Not Enough
Research looking at Western European countries tends to suggest that the negative effect of parenthood on individuals’ subjective wellbeing is one of the key factors explaining low fertility trends. In a new study, Márta K. Radó (Postdoctoral Researcher at Erasmus University Medical Center Rotterdam and Research Fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) tested this association for Hungary, which is an especially interesting case for two main reasons. First, low fertility is a long-term trend in the country. Second, this persistently low fertility rate is paired with one of the longest and most extensively used periods of parental leave in Europe: By law, parents are eligible to take 24 weeks of parental leave while receiving 70% of their average salary before birth and to receive flat-rate benefits for three years.
The study is based on data from the Turning Points of Life Course programme (the Hungarian Generations & Gender Survey), a longitudinal survey carried out by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office. This survey was conducted in 2001-2002, 2004-2005, 2008-2009 and 2012-2013, and followed an initial 16,663 Hungarian adults born between 1922 and 1983. This paper uses data from those waves in which subjective wellbeing was measured (the first, second and fourth waves).
Overall, results show that parenthood has a long-lasting positive effect on subjective wellbeing in Hungary. This effect is not only positive during parental leave, but long after it. The persistent positive effect found in Hungary is comparable to that found in countries with a higher fertility rate or shorter parental leave system in some international findings. The author also finds that not only the arrival of a first child but also a second one permanently increases subjective wellbeing. These findings are exceptional in international comparison since it has only been found in Russia that having a second child has such a strong long-term effect.
So why do Hungarians not have a second child more often if having a child brings such positive effects on subjective wellbeing? The only trend that this research suggests as a possible explanation to the low fertility rate is that fatherhood does not have a significantly positive long-term effect on life satisfaction (fathers experience only a temporary positive effect). The effect of fatherhood is important as parenthood typically involves a joint decision and both genders should ideally benefit from this life event in order to realise further parity progression. The finding of an insignificant effect of fatherhood is in line with previous research conducted in the Central and Eastern European countries – specifically, in Poland and in Bulgaria – and is probably related to the dismantling of institutions, poor economic conditions, shifts in values and social anomie, rather than parenthood being unsatisfactory per se.