Wellbeing strongly depends on who you are. For example, individuals with higher education and income tend to have better health and higher satisfaction with their life, while women often report more physical and health problems than men. The question that remains open is to what extent these patterns actually change over the life course.
On the one hand, early inequalities may be exacerbated by the ageing process, causing wellbeing trajectories to diverge over the life course. This is exemplified by the fact that well-educated individuals are less likely to face risky situations and are less vulnerable when they experience adverse life course events. Additionally, education equips individuals with positive attitudes and resources that are useful for the maintenance of health across the life course. On the other hand, the ageing process could smooth initial differences across groups if the resources that generated the inequality in the first place are overcome over the life course.
In a new study, Anna Barbuscia (University of Lausanne and Ined) and Chiara Comolli (Stockholm University and University of Lausanne) examine the development of wellbeing across age by gender and education in France and Switzerland. They use data from two rich household surveys (the Santé et Itinéraire Professionnel and the Swiss Household Panel) to compare trends in different dimensions of physical and mental health as well as relational wellbeing.
Their results indicate that in both countries, gender differences in mental health widen with age. While gender inequalities tend to accumulate with age, educational gaps do not seem to diverge over time but were largest in mid-life. This suggests that gender inequalities tend to be based on structural disadvantages that grow and accumulate with life events and the ageing process. For instance, the difficulties women face in reconciling family and work and managing career interruptions might have cumulative negative effects that make them more vulnerable than men at older ages. In contrast, socioeconomic inequalities, at least in the two contexts and given the indicators analysed by the authors, seem to be linked to characteristics that matter mostly in mid-life, while they are less relevant for reducing inequalities at older ages.
Overall, the study shows how unequally wellbeing is distributed across social groups, and how such inequalities develop over age in two different contexts. The issue is of great relevance in contexts characterised by an ageing population and growing imbalances across and within generations, where ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to have a happy and healthy life is a primary welfare goal. Viewing wellbeing as multidimensional, the authors highlight that a satisfactory ageing process entails not just remaining in good health but also having high levels of subjective, psychological, relational and financial wellbeing. Growing wellbeing inequalities observed in many countries suggest that researchers and policy-makers should focus on reducing demographic and socioeconomic gaps in quality of life.