Proposal preview

Women’s early life conditions and later-life outcomes

Social, economic and environmental experiences in early life can have large and lasting effects on human capital. Negative shocks to a child’s environment can permanently alter the trajectory of psychological and physical development. More broadly, consistent exposure over several years to different environments than peers can induce lasting long-term differences in domains as different as occupational or educational attainment, earnings, stature, and reproductive history. That is, adult economic behavior and outcomes are not simply the result of rational choices made at the time, but influenced by past choices made by parents.

Economic historians have made a significant contribution to the literature on early life conditions. By connecting different sources across time economic historians have been able to expand the number of cohorts whose complete lives can be studies (e.g. Ferrie and Rolf, 2011). Necessarily much of the research on early life conditions in historical cohorts has studied men. Linking individuals across time requires identifying information that does not change, and in historical sources this is largely the combination of name, birthdate, and birthplace. Women, whose names typically change on marriage, are often difficult or expensive to trace over long spans of time when “early life” is defined as childhood and the outcome of interest occurs after most women have married.

Women have been studied in prospective panel studies that largely began after World War II, such as the Wisconsin Longitudinal Survey, the National Longitudinal Surveys, and the British 1946, 1958 and 1970 birth cohort studies among others. However, the cohorts in these post-war studies have many members still alive and suffer from censoring in studying outcomes such as mortality, or conversely life expectancy. Thus, most studies of early twentieth century female cohorts have been Scandinavian, where population registers allow life history construction for both men and women, or straightforward prospective tracing of individual lives. With no centralized population registers in the United States it is difficult to trace people across time and space unless people are enrolled in a study early in their life. With the continuing digitization and indexing of marriage registrations, it is becoming easier to trace women’s lives through the veil of marriage; and construct data that describes their early life circumstances (from census data, for example) and connects to their later-life outcomes (in aging surveys or Medicare data, for example).

The literature on how early life conditions affects men’s outcomes may not generalize to women’s lives, particularly in the twentieth century when women’s socio-economic roles changed substantially. Throughout the twentieth century the vast majority of males were in the labor force from their 20s to their 60s. By contrast women’s labor market position changed dramatically between the 1920s and 1970s from a norm of short work spells before marriage to a norm of work throughout women’s adult lives. Thus, well-regarded scholars conclude the life-course relationship between women’s socio-economic trajectories and their health is not well understood (Kuh and Hardy, 2004).

It is important therefore to consider the relationship between women’s early life conditions and later outcomes separately, and identify progress made and questions for future research.

Proposed participants
Sakari Saaritsa, Excess female mortality, tuberculosis, adolescence and modernization: Evidence from Finnish population statistics, 19th – 20th c.
Luciana Quaranta, Early life exposures and female reproductive health: Evidence from the Scanian Economic Demographic Database
Katie Genadek and Margaret Charleroy, The impact of early life conditions on women’s entry into the scientific workforce
Maarit Olkkola, The long-term effects of a universal child welfare clinic system in Finland
Evan Roberts and Wendy Rahn, Early life socioeconomic conditions and later-life health and mortality in a cohort of American women, 1916-2016
Matthias Rosenbaum-Feldbrügge, Parental loss in childhood and later marriage outcomes.

Ferrie, J., & Rolf, K. (2011). Socioeconomic status in childhood and health after age 70: A new longitudinal analysis for the U.S., 1895–2005. Explorations in Economic History, 48, 445-460.
Kuh D, Hardy R. (2004) A life course approach to women’s health. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  • Evan Roberts, University of Minnesota,,

Session members

  • Sakari Saaritsa, University of Helsinki,
  • Luciana Quaranta, Lund University,
  • Maarit Olkkola, Barcelona Graduate School of Economics,
  • Katie Genadek, University of Colorado,
  • Evan Roberts, University of Minnesot,
  • Matthias Rosenbaum-Feldbrügge, Radboud University,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Joseph Ferrie, Northwestern University,