COVID-19 and the Work/Family Interface: Gender, Education, Labour Market Inequalities, Household Dynamics, and Individual Wellbeing from a Life Course Perspective
Rising social and economic inequality is one of the major risks to our future prosperity and security. The life changing COVID‑19 pandemic has heightened the urgency to examine the interdependencies of education, work, family, and wellbeing across the life course in relation to social institutions and policies. Although numerous studies on the impact of COVID‑19 on people’s lives have emerged since 2020, there is little research capacity in Canada to examine the impact of such an event within the context of documented life course trajectories of individuals.
As principal investigator of the “Paths on Life’s Way” Project, I have carried out seven waves of panel survey questionnaire data collection (1989-2021) — including a 33 year COVID‑19 focussed follow-up (2021, currently underway) — with a representative sample of the British Columbia high school graduating class of 1988 from their late teens to age 51. In this granting period, through comprehensive analyses with my graduate students and colleagues, I will address three timely themes with a focus on inequitable opportunities and outcomes over time.
Theme 1: Shecession versus Mancession: Canadian Women and Men’s Employment Patterns in Times of Economic Recession. In regular recessions, women serve as insurance for families by serving as “shock absorbers” who continue or increase their employment when men lose their jobs (mancession). In the COVID‑19 pandemic recession, female-dominated jobs have been hardest hit and women have been disproportionately affected by high unemployment (shecession). In this set of analyses, the cumulative labour market activities of women and men with varying levels of education across the spans of the 2008 recession and the 2020/21 pandemic will be compared in terms of labour market engagement, income, and family financial wellbeing. Themes 2 and 3 will build on the findings of Theme 1. Theme 2: The Impact of COVID‑19 on the Gendered Division of Household Tasks and Childcare. The focus of these analyses will be on pre- and post-pandemic changes in household responsibilities in relation to women’s paid and unpaid work and career trajectories. We will document the extent to which household tasks, childcare, schooling, and “family care work” within households has changed immediately before and after the pandemic and in relation to policies and benefits introduced since March 2020. Patterns of and shifts in the division of household tasks and childcare will also be examined across time through to 2021 and will be compared with previous time points. Theme 3: The COVID‑19 Pandemic, Work-Family Balance, and Wellbeing. Analyses will focus on levels of physical and mental health, happiness and wellbeing, and views regarding work-family balance — by educational attainment — reported by women and men over multiple time points, including the last two recessions. Variability in life course patterns of experienced wellbeing across time will be traced in relation to personal, educational, and employment factors and, most recently, the COVID‑19 pandemic and related government restrictions and financial benefits.
According to Settersten et al., (2020) “life course researchers emphasize how earlier life experiences . . . . shape the effects of subsequent experiences on individuals and entire cohorts. Therefore, the greatest data gains will be made by building on ongoing longitudinal projects that link information on life before COVID‑19 to experiences during and specific to the pandemic” (p. 9). One of the key products of the “Paths on Life’s Way” study is the database itself. The “Paths” study remains one of the few ongoing longitudinal studies following individuals for over a third of a century through to midlife, up to and including the COVID‑19 pandemic.