It might be a little too soon to get excited about your next corporate retreat or big business trip. In a study published earlier this month, Deloitte found that although business travel in the U.S. and Europe was continuing to recover, the sector “likely faces a limited upside”—and employers are going to remain choosy about how often they’re willing to book trips for staff.
Analysts at the accounting giant polled 334 corporate travel managers—executives with travel budget oversight—in five countries, including the U.S., in Feb. 2023. In the first half of 2023, spending on corporate travel was expected to surpass half of 2019 levels, and by the end of the year it was expected to reach two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels, the findings suggested.
Live events, like conferences, were expected to drive the business travel recovery in 2023, with more than half of the travel managers surveyed expecting industry events to reignite business travel.
However, the prognosis for regular business trips didn’t look so good, according to the study. The findings showed that while spending on business travel was likely to recover to 2019 levels by late 2024 or early 2025, the frequency of work trips was unlikely to fully recover.
“Adjusting for lost growth and inflation indicates that in real terms, corporate travel will likely be smaller than it was prior to the pandemic,” Deloitte’s analysts said. ESG initiatives were also likely to put a cap on how many trips employers would be willing to send their staff on in the future, the report said.
“Climate concerns will likely put a cap on corporate travel gains for several years to come. Four in 10 European companies and a third of U.S. companies say they need to reduce travel per employee by more than 20% to meet their 2030 sustainability targets,” its authors wrote.
“As trip volume increases, travel managers face high prices, tough supplier negotiations, and sustainability mandates,” Deloitte’s experts said in their report. They noted that while leisure travel had returned to pre-pandemic levels months ago, corporate travel was struggling to stage a similar recovery.
“Decisions about these trips face an entirely different calculus, accounting for a host of factors: traveler safety and willingness to board a flight, client interest in meeting in person, the value of attending a conference, and whether a virtual conferencing platform can replace the trip—just to name a few,” Deloitte’s analysts explained.
While the easing of COVID-induced travel rules in many countries made traveling for business much simpler in the second half of last year, analysts said that these travel-friendly changes were competing with macroeconomic uncertainty when it came to swaying companies’ decisions on whether to reintroduce business trips.
While Deloitte’s predictions set a grim scene for the corporate travel landscape, one industry insider said the accounting giant’s outlook did not necessarily apply to business travel as a whole. Kieran Hartell, managing director of corporate travel at English travel agency Travel Counsellors, told Fortune that while he understood the shift toward travel cost reduction at large multinational firms, he was seeing small companies continue to invest in business travel.
This, he said, was a strategy small firms were using “as a key pillar for growing their business overseas and investing in face to face, human relationship building, aiding both growth and retention of existing relationships.” Business travel bookings among Travel Counsellors’ small business clients had returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2022, and in 2023 was already 59% higher than it had been in 2019, he said.
“There has been a particular focus on travel to North America and Europe, both with extended trip durations, suggesting clients are stacking multiple meetings into each journey and younger employees are extending through weekends to take advantage of ‘bleisure’ opportunities,” he said.
Emil Martinsek, CMO of Berlin-based travel agency GetYourGuide agreed that post-COVID, there had been a big rise in “bleisure” travel—a mixture of business and leisure travel.“Even while traveling to meet clients, connect with business partners or even working remotely, our customers are increasingly looking to maximize the experiences on their [business] trips,” he said in an email.
Business travel ‘will never recover’
While Hartell and Martinesk expressed optimism about the future of business travel, Robert Blaszczyk, head of the strategic clients department at currency exchange start-up Conotoxia, told Fortune that he agreed with Deloitte’s forecasts.
“Today, when the threat of coronavirus no longer forces remote work or prevents private or business travel, the solutions adopted at the height of the pandemic still work,” he said, arguing that handling things remotely that once would have required a business trip was “cheaper, faster, safer and easier.”
“Employees do not have to break away from their daily activities for a few days, and the employer does not have to spend money on tickets, allowances or hotels,” he added. “In the past, online meetings concerning serious issues were not so natural for us—now they are. That’s why, in my opinion, business travel will not disappear, but it will never recover to pre-COVID levels.”
Workers assemble cars at a Ford Assembly Plant in Chicago. AFP via Getty Images
The unemployment rate unexpectedly fell last month as the economy added another 263,000 jobs—signaling that the labor market, which has remained one of the economy’s strongest pillars during the pandemic recovery, may not be cooling quickly enough for the Federal Reserve to ease up on interest rate hikes meant to combat inflation by slowing down the economy.
Job gains in September were down from 315,000 in August but slightly better than the 255,000 new jobs economists were expecting, according to data released Friday by the Labor Department; notable job gains occurred in healthcare, leisure and hospitality, the government said.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate fell to 3.5%—coming in lower than expectations calling for it to remain flat at 3.7%—as the number of unemployed people dipped to 5.8 million from 6 million in August.
“The numbers are a positive sign that the labor market isn’t deteriorating as quickly as some had feared,” says Eric Merlis, managing director at Citizens Bank, pointing out average hourly earnings were the same month over month and fell from 5.2% to 5% on a yearly basis—a welcome development for the Fed, which is concerned inflation could remain hot as a result of higher wages.
The overall job gains mark the lowest monthly total since April of last year, but in emailed comments analyst Adam Crisafulli of Vital Knowledge Media said the report is “still too robust” for the Fed to pivot from its aggressive tightening just yet.
As a result, stock futures fell immediately after the report, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average turning negative to trade down 62 points, or 0.2%, by 8:45 a.m. EDT, while the S&P 500 and tech-heavy Nasdaq fell 0.5% and 0.9%, respectively.
Despite widespread reports of layoffs at giant corporations, the job market has remained one of the economy’s strongest pillars this year, and Fed officials have long pointed to the strength as evidence the economy can withstand additional rate hikes. According to Challenger, U.S. employers have announced plans to cut nearly 210,000 jobs this year, marking the lowest total for the period since at least 1993. However, recent data have signaled things may be changing.
Hiring intentions, which measure the number of new jobs employers plan to add, fell to their lowest level since 2011, according to career services firm Challenger on Thursday. Meanwhile, new jobless claims jumped 15% to 219,000 last week, coming in higher than projected and ending a ten-week streak of better-than-expected data.
The Fed’s next interest rate announcement is due November 2. After the latest jobs data, investors are still expecting officials will hike rates by another 75 basis points—pushing borrowing costs to a new 15-year high.
The global agenda on poverty and shared prosperity hinges in large part on the number and quality of jobs people have. Even before the disruption caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the world was changing rapidly and that is true for the nature of work and how we acquire skills on- and off- the job. Technological change and globalization have created unparalleled economic opportunities and challenges while shaping a new geography of jobs.
They are changing how skills are rewarded and create large uncertainties in terms of which skills will remain relevant in the medium to long term. Similarly, climate change is already generating significant disruptions, threatening livelihoods, and generating displacement, while at the same time opening new opportunities in greener economic activities for those with the necessary skills and inputs to clench them.
A new demographic landscape is developing – through aging in some parts of the world or youth bulges in others. This is generating a new set of opportunities for growth and better jobs through labor and skills policies but also concerns if policymakers do not react to demographic shifts. At the same time, demographic change also nurtures concerns such as the consequences of a shrinking labor force with depreciating skills (aging) and questions about maintaining social cohesion (e.g. in countries with high shares of unemployed youth).
In parallel, rapid urbanization is bringing new benefits from agglomeration, but also new challenges of identifying and connecting millions of vulnerable people, women, and youth to jobs in the more anonymous urban centers. Migration of workers within and between countries continues to be an important trend in most regions across the globe.
In addition to these opportunities and challenges linked to global mega-trends, significant structural issues prevail in labor markets across the world, notably inequality and informality. Substantial inequalities persist in the access to work and its quality. These include the segmentation of workers by their form of employment, their gender, age, or location, both between countries but also within countries’ urban and rural areas. Many women remain outside of the labor force in countries around the world; when they do work, they often do so in activities where pay is low and opportunities to progress scant.
Many youths are idle: not employed, or in education or training, putting a dent in aspirations. Just as worrisome, many of those who do work do so in very low productivity activities, often informally, without access to social or legislative protections and with few opportunities to move up the labor market ladder or learn. As a result, many workers today are poor or one shock away from falling into poverty.
COVID-19 impacts could leave an entire generation behind; the outlook for future employment, productivity, and earnings growth is sobering. Experience shows that workers who start looking for a job during a recession experience significant and long-lasting negative impacts on employment and income compared to those with better timing. This ‘COVID-19 Generation’ includes recent graduates, first-time job seekers, and workers who have lost jobs due to the pandemic.
They are likely to be scarred from this crisis the longer they are out of work or underemployed. The disruptive impact of the COVID-19 crisis on workers, labor markets, skills development, and livelihoods, as well as its likely long-standing impact on the world of work, has reinforced the importance of labor & skills policies and programs. Looking beyond the crisis, it is imperative to reflect on the multiple impacts of COVID-19 on labor markets and skills development and understand its future implications on the agenda, especially in developing countries.
This changing landscape for employment relations overlays with other factors that have traditionally provided the rationale for public interventions, including market failures and the exploitation of workers. Public labor and skills policy interventions can help mitigate these challenges. They can, for example, limit uneven bargaining power, reduce information asymmetries or discrimination, improve access, quality, efficiency but also the relevance of skills training, and provide protection against risks such as job loss and disability.
As outlined in the World Bank’s 2013 World Development Report, beyond policies that facilitate investments and growth, advancing the global jobs agenda requires the right investment in people – the right skills for people to secure good jobs, the right protection for people against risks arising from volatile economies, and the right mechanisms to help people transition smoothly out of inactivity and unemployment into jobs, and from low to higher productivity employment.
Labor policies and programs support these goals. Labor regulations and insurance programs protect workers from risks and, if well-designed, can facilitate labor market transitions thereby allowing individuals to engage in higher risk, higher return activities. Active labor market programs such as training, job-search assistance, or support to self-employment or micro-enterprises can also help workers acquire the skills they need and connect them to jobs. For many, these programs can facilitate internal or international labor mobility and increase access to better economic opportunities.
The hotel industry is projected to rebound to near pre-pandemic levels after being battered by the outbreak of COVID-19, but the path to full recovery is still a ways away, according to a new report from the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
The report’s findings reveal that 2022 will be a year of growth for the industry, as “bleisure” travel – the crossover of business and leisure – will launch new demand. According to an analysis by Oxford Economics, demand for hotel rooms is projected to approach 2019 levels in 2022.
But even though the industry will be moving toward recovery in the new year, full recovery can still take several years for reasons including the loss of ancillary and room revenue. In 2020 and 2021, hotels lost a collective $111.8 billion in room revenue alone.
“Hotels have faced enormous challenges over the past two years, and we are still a long way from full recovery,” AHLA CEO Chip Rogers said. “The uncertainty about the omicron variant suggests just how difficult it will be to predict travel readiness in 2022, adding to the challenges hotels are already facing.”
Leisure travelers will drive most of the positive momentum for the industry in 2022, but business travelers are only expected to represent 43.6% of room revenue compared to 52.5% in 2019.
As the pandemic keeps much of America’s workforce at home, business travel is expected to stay down more than 20% throughout the year. Meanwhile, only 58% of meetings and events are expected to take place.
On the contrary, the influx in bleisure travel revealed that 89% of business travelers are looking to add a private trip to their next professional outing in the next 12 months.
“The slow return of business travel and fewer meetings and events continue to have a significant negative impact on our industry,” Rogers added. “The growth of leisure and bleisure travel represents a shift for our industry, and hotels will continue evolving to meet the needs of these ‘new’ travelers.
As the effects of COVID-19 spread across the entire world, the primary focus for governments and businesses is the safety of their people. Whilst this focus will continue, the implications for economic growth and corporate profits have to lead to a sharp sell-off in equity markets across the globe.
We are proud to see that our hospitality and leisure clients, being the first ones that experienced the extreme bad weather conditions, are moving quickly and remain focused to understand and quantify the operational and financial impact for their business. The impact is huge, and not yet predictable, on both revenue and supply chains.
Decisions being taken to shut down hotels, restaurants, theme parks, cinemas, not to mention the entire disruptive effect of the travel ecosystem, all have a significant impact on worldwide tourism. As a team, Operators and Investors are trying to mitigate the cash and working capital issues, and stay in close contact with their stakeholders.
We are proud to see that this sector shows its maturity level: in working together, showing their true hospitality commitments in helping out our society where they can. For example by making their venue available for hospital beds and hospital employees.
The situation we are in also brings new business models and opportunities, in defining for instance new delivery concepts, human capital sharing platforms, initiatives in promoting the “staycation or holistay concept” and the use of the less productive time to work on activities that were normally pushed forward like asset counts, security plans, defining standard operating procedures, social media plans etc.
The good news is that our colleagues in Asia already see a pick up in this sector, although only at the starting point. This gives hope for the sector at this stage in time. Stay positive, stay focused and stay alert on your financial situation.
I didn’t love my old therapist, but she did give me one crucial piece of advice: Get a hobby. I was writing about food for work, so cooking didn’t really count as a hobby anymore — I’d already monetized that one — nor did reading, nor socializing, especially since all of my friends worked in my industry. I needed something in my life that existed apart from all that. I was stressed and, of course, also on my phone too much (and still am).
Maybe something you can do with your hands. The suggestion felt like an escape hatch: Maybe a hobby could free me from toil. Cooking had once been the thing I did to relax when I got home from work, the thing I was curious about, the thing that distracted my brain from its standard litany of complaints. Puttering in the kitchen had once been a release, but now it was part of my professional life. It needed a replacement. A few months later, I dutifully signed up for a ceramics class at a studio nearish my Brooklyn apartment.
This was March 2016. One of my roommates was an artist who had taken a class at that same studio, and I always envied the little pots she made. One of them was shaped like the face of a woman, with a ponytail for a handle. She gave it to me, and I put a small succulent in it that would soon die. I hoped that taking a class could make me more like her, or at the very least, happier — and if not that, well, maybe I’d make myself a bowl to put pasta in.
Learning to make ceramics on the wheel — this is what you picture when you think of that scene from Ghost — feels initially impossible, pointless, tantrum-inducing. In class, our teacher showed us how to take a blob of clay and slam it onto the machine’s surface, strong-arm it into symmetry as the wheel whirred around, dig a hole in its center with our fingers, make the hole wider, and then raise up the walls that would make it a vessel.
Doing it on my own was another thing entirely: a reminder of the unkind presence of physics, an asymmetrical lump thwapping around like an off-balance tornado, just some really ugly shit that would occasionally collapse in on itself.
This is par for the course. Most of us suck at first. The stuff you made in second-grade art class was objectively better. Clay shrinks when fired in a kiln, so the first mugs I made that weren’t ugly came out more like handled thimbles. Glazing each piece — decorating it with the often-colorful vitrified coating that makes it water-tight and food-safe, and glossy or matte — was its own messy challenge. My goal became not to make art or even craft, so much as to make things I didn’t hate.
Of course, failing at something new doesn’t feel good; it feels like banging your head against a wall in front of an invisible audience of your own making. Turning off the desire to excel once you leave work is often impossible, if not difficult.
That said, the pace of my failure was different at the studio. Making ceramics requires patience and is an exercise in delayed gratification (or dissatisfaction). There are so many ways to fuck something up, so many stages to the process, and entering that cycle of hope, expectation, and either failure and trying again or ecstatic satisfaction added a new dimension to the rhythms of my life. Entering that cycle of hope, expectation, and failure and trying again added a new dimension to the rhythms of my life
Through this mild and harmless struggle, I acquired a hobby. “How agitated I am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so agitated,” Jamaica Kincaid writes in My Garden (Book). “Nothing works just the way I thought it would, nothing looks just the way I had imagined it, and when sometimes it does look like what I had imagined (and this, thank God, is rare) I am startled that my imagination is so ordinary.”
Powerlessness, for an amateur, can be its own draw. At the studio, I started as a lazy learner, but in a few months became obsessed, signing up for more classes when my session ended. My classes netted out to about $40 a week, plus materials and the cost of firing. I was spending maybe $200 a month, which required an increased vigilance in my other spending but also meant I had something to care about.
I had a place to go in my free time that was not my office, or my apartment, or a friend’s apartment, or a restaurant, or a bar. I had something to be curious about, and my goals were unrelated to exterior forces: a boss, a job, a market, a reader. Unlike with writing, my progress was quantifiable: Now I can make a vase this tall. Now I have made a planter. Now my handles are beautiful. Now I have made two things that more or less look like a pair.
I also relished having something to do that didn’t involve a screen and therefore felt far from the style of work to which I was most accustomed. Hands covered in clay cannot swipe very well. Hobbies have always been defined by their tenuous relationship to work: After industrialization bifurcated life into the realms of work and leisure, hobbies appeared as something “productive” for workers to do with their newly minted chunks of free time.
“Leisure came to represent freedom because it took place in time separate from work, and time in an industrial world could be used for either work or leisure,” writes Steven Gelber in his book Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. “For this reason, industrial capitalism sharpened the West’s ambivalent feelings about leisure.” Leisure does not exist without work and is therefore defined by it.
Even as hobbies gained popularity among the 19th-century middle class, they mimicked the capitalist attitudes of the workplaces from which they were meant to provide relief. “Since the hobby was done at home in free time, it was under the complete control of the hobbyist. It was, in other words, a re-embracing of preindustrial labor, a recreation of the world of the yeoman, artisan, and independent merchant,” Gelber writes. “Hobbies were a Trojan horse that brought the ideology of the factory and office into the parlor.”
The capitalist value of a “work ethic” has always been present in the world of the hobbyist. We love hobbies because they are something to do that isn’t work, something that we choose to do. But they still so often require toil; we are still proud of ourselves when we perform our hobbies efficiently, competently. Pursuit of mastery is implied, if not always present. For me, few things match the thrill of pulling something beautiful out of the kiln. It always feels like a surprise I have magically given myself.
Once I had made a few things that I didn’t hate — and because I have a smartphone and a need for validation — I began posting photos of my work on Instagram. I loved making mugs, loved their practicality and the way they fit into a home. A mug can look like anything. I had newfound opinions on what mine should look like, and that felt good.
By the winter, people were asking to buy them. I was freelancing at the time, and my studio cost about $200 a month, plus more for materials. If I could regularly sell a few mugs, I’d break even. The baseline price for these things, according to a brief survey of other potters, was around $40 — I started selling mine for $35 or $40, depending on size.
From the beginning I felt like I was doing everything wrong. Like maybe I should wait until I got a little better, or until I could make a nice shiny website, or until I had, I don’t know, SKUs. But it felt irresponsible to turn down a few people who would help cover my expenses and who wanted my work in their hands. Once you start making things, you have to put them somewhere. You begin to understand why people collect stamps.
Certain hobbies are difficult to monetize — say, bird-watching. Coin collecting, unless you sell it all. Gardening. Many things can only be monetized by becoming a teacher, or maybe now an influencer. Once demand appeared, selling felt like an inevitability. I wanted to keep making things but didn’t have space to keep it all; people love mugs; selling something feels like a pat on the head followed by a treat. (To be clear, the treat is money.)
People began commissioning mugs, and they’d tell me what color they wanted, send me a photo of something I’d made and ask for something similar. It was slapdash but it worked, and it covered my expenses. I was having fun and only mildly stressed by the process, always behind schedule. I look back now at some of the things that people paid for and feel a bit embarrassed, but I’m always wishing my work were a little uglier, so maybe I should be proud.
Once demand appeared, selling felt like an inevitability Somewhere along the line I made a website and started selling things more formally, claiming the revenue on my taxes, finding a person with a real camera to take photos of my work. I’d leave my day job at a magazine and go to the studio, often until 1 or 2 in the morning. It made me late for work, but I didn’t care; I ended up getting laid off with one foot out the door, and was given the gift of time — more daytime hours, at least — to spend at the studio. I had lost my hobby and gained a revenue stream.
My ceramic work, now, is caught up in the question of selling. Mugs sell, so I make more of them. I take a sick pleasure in the exhausting production line of throwing, trimming, attaching handles, smoothing everything down, painting, glazing, firing, staring at rows of cups lined up like synchronized swimmers, ready to jump. It’s the same sick pleasure I get in staying up until 2 am working on a jigsaw puzzle: maniacally focused on my goal at the expense of my posture. Untangling the question of what I want to make from what will sell feels like crawling out of a very deep well.
The swiftness with which modern craftspeople can and do monetize their hobbies is, of course, not a surprise. Traditional careers are crumbling, and side hustles are fetishized; Instagram has turned marketing into a basic skill we’re all expected to have. It’s easier to sell the crap you make in your spare time, and you’re more likely to need the money than you might have been a few decades ago, when you could have just foisted it all on your friends. This all risks turning hobbies into even more of an illusion, a mirage of leisure that quickly turns to obligation.
Some people, though, have fought the seduction of commerce and won. RC, an artist who makes work under the name marinatedclouds, began her first sculptural project with the express intention not to sell it. She was burned out from working a full-time job in graphic design, where in order for an idea to succeed, it needed to be marketable. “So many interesting concepts got dismissed because they couldn’t fit into a business context,” she remembers. “It became a situation where I started feeling really empty — I didn’t know how to have fun anymore.”
She had long toyed with the idea of creating a book about chicken and rice, with 35 different dishes from around the world. But she’d never gotten around to it; the work was too similar to her job as a graphic designer. So she decided to turn it into a sculptural project, quitting her job in April 2018 and giving herself the summer to focus on ceramic chicken and rice. Once she was done, she just kept making things.
Her work is influenced by early 2000s nostalgia and her Taiwanese American upbringing; her pieces look like something made by a child from a different dimension, playful and mind-blowing in one. Pencils are sliced like bananas; crayons threaten to crawl out of their box. She once made an entire aughts-era desktop computer.
“Nurturing ideas was and is something I’m still extremely steadfast about,” RC says. “I want to pursue every idea, whether it lacks concept or not. Sometimes just making crayons is literally what I want. There’s no additional background to it, I just like the rainbow.” Refusing to sell her work — something she did for two years, despite enthusiastic interest from people on Instagram — allowed her to create the world of marinatedclouds without tainting it with outside influence. “For me, it’s just pursuing any and every idea that I have. That’s my form of self-expression.”
Quickly, her pieces began to pile up in her one-bedroom apartment. She was tripping over things. She got rid of her living room and turned it into a studio; she has no couch. But last winter, after a financially challenging 2020, she decided to sell some of her older pieces, both to make money and to clear space for new work. She learned that donuts sell really well. “That’s feedback that I didn’t actually need, but it does stay in the back of my head, and that’s something I do really want to avoid,” she says. She doesn’t want to cater to demand — only her own whims.
This is, for many of us, the dream: unfettered commitment to externalizing our innards without concern for any gaze but our own. Reclaiming one’s time, you could say. But it requires nothing short of a battle. “Society puts so much pressure on success as in status or monetization,” RC says, “but success to me now is being true to myself.”
I can no longer call ceramics my hobby, and I doubt I ever will. I assume I will sell my work until people stop buying it, both out of necessity and because it does bring me joy to make a silly little thing that someone will incorporate into the tableau of their home. The struggle, for me, is between what I want to make and what I assume people will buy; the struggle of wishing I could log off forever but knowing that Instagram is the most direct marketing tool I have. The only solution I have come up with is to have a segment of my work I make just for myself, without concern for the market — or at least with an attempted lack of concern.
But making time for that also means carving out time, both for creation and inspiration, for the rest that is required for my brain to think thoughts. This is something I crave more than a new hobby; this is peace.
Research has found that having children is terrible for quality of life—but the truth about what parenthood means for happiness is a lot more complicated.
Few choices are more important than whether to have children, and psychologists and other social scientists have worked to figure out what having kids means for happiness. Some of the most prominent scholars in the field have argued that if you want to be happy, it’s best to be childless. Others have pushed back, pointing out that a lot depends on who you are and where you live. But a bigger question is also at play: What if the rewards of having children are different from, and deeper than, happiness?
The early research is decisive: Having kids is bad for quality of life. In one study, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues asked about 900 employed women to report, at the end of each day, every one of their activities and how happy they were when they did them. They recalled being with their children as less enjoyable than many other activities, such as watching TV, shopping, or preparing food.
Other studies find that when a child is born, parents experience a decrease in happiness that doesn’t go away for a long time, in addition to a drop in marital satisfaction that doesn’t usually recover until the children leave the house. As the Harvard professor Dan Gilbert puts it, “The only symptom of empty nest syndrome is nonstop smiling.”
After all, having children, particularly when they are young, involves financial struggle, sleep deprivation, and stress. For mothers, there is also in many cases the physical strain of pregnancy and breastfeeding. And children can turn a cheerful and loving romantic partnership into a zero-sum battle over who gets to sleep and work and who doesn’t.
As the Atlantic staff writer Jennifer Senior notes in her book, All Joy and No Fun, children provoke a couple’s most frequent arguments—“more than money, more than work, more than in-laws, more than annoying personal habits, communication styles, leisure activities, commitment issues, bothersome friends, sex.” Someone who doesn’t understand this is welcome to spend a full day with an angry 2-year-old (or a sullen 15-year-old); they’ll find out what she means soon enough.
But, as often happens in psychology, although some research provided simple findings—in this case, “having children makes you unhappy”—other efforts arrived at more complicated conclusions. For one, the happiness hit is worse for some people than for others. One study finds that fathers ages 26 to 62 actually get a happiness boost, while young or single parents suffer the greatest loss. And crucially, there are geographic differences.
A 2016 paper looking at the happiness levels of people with and without children in 22 countries found that the extent to which children make you happy is influenced by whether your country has child-care policies such as paid parental leave. Parents from Norway and Hungary, for instance, are happier than childless couples in those countries—but parents from Australia and Great Britain are less happy than their childless peers. The country with the greatest happiness drop after you have children? The United States.
Children make some happy and others miserable; the rest fall somewhere in between—it depends, among other factors, on how old you are, whether you are a mother or a father, and where you live. But a deep puzzle remains: Many people would have had happier lives and marriages had they chosen not to have kids—yet they still describe parenthood as the “best thing they’ve ever done.” Why don’t we regret having children more?
One possibility is a phenomenon called memory distortion. When we think about our past experiences, we tend to remember the peaks and forget the mundane awfulness in between. Senior frames it like this: “Our experiencing selves tell researchers that we prefer doing the dishes—or napping, or shopping, or answering emails—to spending time with our kids … But our remembering selves tell researchers that no one—and nothing—provides us with so much joy as our children.
It may not be the happiness we live day to day, but it’s the happiness we think about, the happiness we summon and remember, the stuff that makes up our life-tales.” These are plausible-enough ideas, and I don’t reject them. But other theories about why people don’t regret parenthood actually have nothing to do with happiness—at least not in a simple sense.
One involves attachment. Most parents love their children, and it would seem terrible to admit that you would be better off if someone you loved didn’t exist. More than that, you genuinely prefer a world with your kids in it. This can put parents in the interesting predicament of desiring a state that doesn’t make them as happy as the alternative. In his book Midlife, the MIT professor Kieran Setiya expands on this point.
Modifying an example from the philosopher Derek Parfit, he asks readers to imagine a situation in which, if you and your partner were to conceive a child before a certain time, the child would have a serious, though not fatal, medical problem, such as chronic joint pain. If you wait, the child will be healthy. For whatever reason, you choose not to wait. You love your child and, though he suffers, he is happy to be alive. Do you regret your decision?
That’s a complicated question. Of course it would have been easier to have a kid without this condition. But if you’d waited, you’d have a different child, and this baby (then boy, then man) whom you love wouldn’t exist. It was a mistake, yes, but perhaps a mistake that you don’t regret. The attachment we have to an individual can supersede an overall decrease in our quality of life, and so the love we usually have toward our children means that our choice to bring them into existence has value above and beyond whatever effect they have on our happiness.
This relates to a second point, which is that there’s more to life than happiness. When I say that raising my sons is the best thing I’ve ever done, I’m not saying that they gave me pleasure in any simple day-to-day sense, and I’m not saying that they were good for my marriage. I’m talking about something deeper, having to do with satisfaction, purpose, and meaning. It’s not just me.
When you ask people about their life’s meaning and purpose, parents say that their lives have more meaning than those of nonparents. A study by the social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues found that the more time people spent taking care of children, the more meaningful they said their life was—even though they reported that their life was no happier.
Raising children, then, has an uncertain connection to pleasure but may connect to other aspects of a life well lived, satisfying our hunger for attachment, and for meaning and purpose. The writer Zadie Smith puts it better than I ever could, describing having a child as a “strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.” Smith, echoing the thoughts of everyone else who has seriously considered these issues, points out the risk of close attachments:
“Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation?” But this annihilation reflects the extraordinary value of such attachments; as the author Julian Barnes writes of grief, quoting a friend, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.”