Exploring the capacity of families, schools, labour markets, and communities, to build and support human capabilities

Socioeconomic disadvantage is a multi-faceted concept reflecting not only people’s lack of economic resources, but also their social exclusion, missing political voice and limited aspirations. Constrained social mobility imposes costs on society. A lack of upward social mobility at the bottom of the distribution means that many people’s talents are squandered, undermining productivity and economic growth. At the same time, a lack of social mobility at the top of the distribution “may translate into persistent rents for a few at the expense of many, due to unequal access to educational, economic or financial opportunities” also resulting in inefficiencies.

Ultimately, any reduction in entrenched disadvantage in Australia must come from reducing the persistence in socioeconomic position and increasing the opportunities for social mobility. For this reason, the research in the Life Course Centre’s Program on Human Capabilities has adopted a broad perspective in its approach to understanding and tackling the challenges posed by social and economic disadvantage. Educational opportunities, chronic illness, mental health, housing insecurity, parenting, family structure, risky behaviour, food security, domestic violence, gender attitudes, parental employment and child care are all under investigation as contributors to and consequences of limited social mobility.



Disadvantage can persist within communities – and across generations – whenever there is a lack of social and economic opportunities for vulnerable people and their families.

– Program Leader Deborah Cobb-Clark




Featured Publications

Our research on second children featured in Newsweek For many parents, the decision to have a second child is made with the expectation that two cannot be more work than one. However, Life Course Centre research shows this logic is flawed as second children increase time pressure and worsen parents’ mental health. This paper examining the impact on parents of a second child attracted widespread international media attention, featuring in 19 news outlets including Newsweek USA. The study investigated the effects of first and second births on time pressure and mental health, and how these vary with time since birth and parental responsibilities. The authors find that children have a stronger effect on mothers’ than fathers’ experiences of time pressure. These differences are not moderated by changes in parental responsibilities or work time following births. The increased time pressure associated with second births explains mothers’ worse mental health.

Ruppanner, L., Perales, F., and Baxter, J. (2018) Harried and Unhealthy? Parenthood, Time Pressure and Mental Health. Journal of Marriage and Family. DOI: 10.1111./jomf.12531

Published in the National Academy of Sciences of the USA This paper exploring the effects of experiencing the death of a sibling on children’s development was published in the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, which is ranked in the top one per cent of scientific journals worldwide. Little is known about the development of children who experience the death of a sibling, but this is a key issue given children’s vulnerability, the malleability of early childhood skills, and their impact on future adult outcomes. By analysing a longitudinal dataset, this paper finds large initial effects on cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes that decline over time. Effects are larger if the surviving child is older and less if the deceased child was disabled or an infant. Auxiliary results show that parental investments in the emotional support of surviving children decline following the death of their child.

Fletcher, J., Vidal-Fernandez, M., and Wolfe, B. (2018) Dynamic and heterogeneous effects of sibling death on children’s outcomes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 115(1): 115–120.

Paper on parents’ gender-role shifts highly cited in 2018 This paper examining the patterns of gender-attitude shifts that accompany parenthood was in the top two per cent most cited in its field in 2018. The findings show men’s and women’s gender-role attitudes become more traditional when they become parents, are more pronounced among men, parents of daughters and, most of all, male parents of daughters. This may be problematic if girls are raised in environments where parents are less likely to invest in their talents, and track them into gender-typical educational pathways. In this scenario, the comparatively higher rates of gender-role traditionalisation observed for parents of firstborn girls would result in their daughters encountering obstacles that limit their life chances not only outside but also within the family home, even if their parents are well intentioned. This may constitute an important factor hampering progress toward gender equality in Australia.

Perales, F., Jarallah, Y., and Baxter, J. (2018) Men’s and women’s gender-role attitudes across the transition to parenthood; Accounting for child’s gender. Social Forces. 97(1): 251-276.