Interview , News of 28 December 2015

SOEP People: Five questions to Matthias Pollmann-Schult

Matthias Pollmann-Schult has been a grant holder in the DFG’s Heisenberg Programme at the Social Science Research Center, Berlin, since 2012. He was a student research assistant with the SOEP from 1997 to 2000. He is one of the few male sociologists doing research on fathers using the SOEP data. We talked to him about his findings on the new generation of “involved fathers,” on whether children make people happy, on how parenthood affects relationships between men and women, and about how he balances his work as a researcher with the everyday demands of fatherhood.

1. You’ve studied how fatherhood affects men’s working hours. What have you found out?
Fatherhood has a relatively minor influence on men’s working hours. That can be seen on the one hand as positive: men are no longer increasing their working hours after children are born like they were in the 1980s. But on the other hand, men are also not working less. So the picture of “involved fathers” who are willing to permanently reduce their working hours to play a larger role in their children’s upbringing is simply not accurate. This did surprise me a bit. I would have thought that more had changed. The SOEP asks respondents about their desired working hours—not just how much they actually do work, but how much they would like to work. And at least here, I would have thought that more fathers would say, yes, I would like to work less. But we don’t see that in the SOEP data.

2. What does that imply about the distribution of roles between men and women?
The interesting thing is that parenthood increases inequality between men and women in two respects. First, it has a negative effect on female employment. Mothers work less than childless women, and they also earn less. Second, parenthood has a positive effect on men’s income. So it increases inequality between men and women in the relationship context, and naturally also between men and women in general.

3. But still, many people consider children the key to happiness. How does that idea fit together with your findings?
Actually, children don’t make people happy. For 30 years now, studies have been showing that parenthood has no major impact on life satisfaction. Some studies show that parents have slightly higher life satisfaction than people without children; others show that people’s life satisfaction actually declines after they become parents. The fact that children don’t make people happy is due to the various burdens associated with parenthood. First, there are the psychosocial burdens of parenthood: People with children have increased time pressures and more difficulties balancing demands in different areas of life. They also have less time for friends and recreational activities. Even just going out to the movies is no longer possible. Second, there are the financial burdens of parenthood. These negative impacts cancel out the overall positive effects that children initially have on life satisfaction.

4. You have been working with the SOEP data for 18 years. What makes these data interesting for you?
The fantastic thing about the SOEP data is that the study has been running for so long. There are data available for a period of more than 30 years. Many respondents have been part of the study for 10 years or even longer. So you can clearly see how life satisfaction changes over the years after people become parents. That’s the great advantage of the SOEP data that no other dataset in Germany offers.

5. You are a researcher and a father. How do you balance the two roles and remain content?
I think you have to set clear limits. In my case, I almost never work at home. I tell myself: that’s my work time, and this is my family time. I try to stick to that.

See our interview in a video in the DIW Mediathek (in German).