Blogs: Harmonized life histories and childhood conditions from SHARE and ELSA

Harmonized life histories and childhood conditions from SHARE and ELSA

by Dr. Morten Wahrendorf & Dr. Christian Deindl
Oct 29, 2020
#SHARE #ELSA #Life-Histories #Children-Conditions

The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing started to collect life history data in Wave 3 in 2006. The Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe followed shortly afterwards (2008/09) also in Wave 3. SHARE started its survey with 11 countries and expanded to currently 27 countries in Wave 7. For all countries and all respondents that joined SHARE after Wave 3 the life history interviews were repeated in Wave 7. The harmonized life history from the Gateway offers life histories from 30 countries ranging from North of Europe (Sweden, Denmark, Finland), and England and Ireland over Continental Europe (Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg), the countries of the Mediterranean Sea (France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Israel) and to Eastern Europe (Czechia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia).

Life history data is an easy way to collect information over past experiences in a respondent’s life. In contrast to “normal” data collection, where respondents are asked about their current situation and where surveys follow them over a couple of years, in life history interviews respondents are asked about events and circumstances before entering the study. SHARE and ELSA collected two types of life history information sequential data and childhood information. The sequential data gives yearly information about employment, housing, health, partnership, and children from the age of 15 till the age of 80. Childhood information contains information about the socio-economic situation and the health of SHARE & ELSA respondents when they were around 10 years old.

Sequential Data

For this, SHARE and ELSA use the lifegrid approach to improve the accuracy of their retrospective interviews and to increase data quality. In the lifegrid approach respondents are confronted with a calendar where they are able to cross-reference events and have the aid of landmark events (e.g. first man on the moon).

The original data provided by SHARE and ELSA is in a wide spell format that is rather complex. For example, in the case of employment, the data provides information on all jobs the respondents had in the past, with varying number between respondent. This includes variables that describe the year when a spell started and ended (up to 20 jobs possible) together with variables that provide details on the respective job (e.g. working time and employment status). To facilitate the use of life history data, we have rearranged this spell-information in a more intuitive state sequence format with one state variable for each age (e.g. work state at age 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, …..). In contrast to the original, this format directly allows to describe conditions at a specific age without need of extensive data management and is the standard format for sequence analyses.

Wide Spell Format

id First employment spell start First employment spell end First employment spell status Second employment spell start Second employment spell end Second employment spell status
1 1963 1965 employed 1965 1970 self-empl.
2 1960 1970 self-empl. - - -
id 1 2
First employment spell start 1963 1960
First employment spell end 1965 1970
First employment spell status employed self-empl.
Second employment spell start 1965 -
Second employment spell end 1970 -
Second employment spell status self-empl. -

Age Sequence Format

id Employment state at age 20 Employment state at age 21 Employment state at age 22 ... Employment state at age 40
1 employed employed employed ... self-empl.
2 self-empl. self-empl. self-empl. ... self-empl.
id 1 2
Employment state at age 20 employed self-empl.
Employment state at age 21 employed self-empl.
Employment state at age 22 employed self-empl.
... ... ...
Employment state at age 40 self-empl. self-empl.

The Harmonized ELSA Life History contain the age-sequenced data for ELSA and the Harmonized SHARE Life History contain the age-sequenced data for SHARE. These Harmonized life history data provide annual information from age 15 to age 80 in the following five domains:

  • Children: total number of children, total number of children below age 18;
  • Partnership: whether respondent lived with a partner;
  • Housing: type of housing (owner, tenant, non-private housing, living abroad, parental home);
  • Work: whether in paid work or not working - distinguishing eight different work states;
  • Health: whether had period of ill health or disability at each age.

If needed, the do-files can be easily modified according to more specific research questions.

Chronogram: Employment for men and women
Source: Harmonized SHARE & ELSA Life History data, Version B
(see: for more visualizations)

Childhood Information

SHARE and ELSA also offers detailed information about the situation during respondent’s childhood. This information is released as part of the Harmonized ELSA and Harmonized SHARE in newly added Childhood sections.

Childhood conditions encompass the socio-economic background: that is the number of books in the parental household (measured as the number of shelfs/bookcases). The number of rooms and the how many people were living in the household. SHARE additionally asked about the occupation of the main breadwinner and features of the parental household like running water, central heating, and so forth. Additionally, the relative school performance in mathematics and language is included.

SHARE and ELSA are a rich source for health data, and childhood information are no exception. Included in the childhood heath section is self-rated health during childhood, whether respondents missed school for more than a month due to ill health, and – for SHARE respondents – vaccination is included. As objective measure of childhood health up to 19 conditions are asked that goes form infectious disease to polio, asthma and to headaches and cancer.

Average years spent in different work states between age 15 and 65 (51 years) for men and women by number of books at childhood (mean scores)

Women Men
0-10 books > 10 books 0-10 books > 10 books
Duration (years) in ...
Employed 15.69 22.83 31.94 34.49
Self-employed 4.21 2.23 8.78 6.45
Unemployed 1.2 0.79 0.91 0.68
Home/Family work 22.67 16.18 0.57 0.19
Retired 2.61 3.06 4.17 3.69
Full-time education 0.47 1.67 0.8 2.4
Other 4.16 3.93 3.83 3.1

Source: Harmonized SHARE & ELSA Life History data, Version B

Further Reading

  1. Wahrendorf, Morten, Hanno Hoven, Christian Deindl, Thorsten Lunau, Paola Zaninotto (2020): Adverse employment histories, later health functioning and national labor market policies: European findings based on life history data from SHARE and Elsa. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences
  2. Deindl, Christian (2013). The Influence of Living Conditions in Early Life on Life Satisfaction in Old Age. Advances in Life Course Research, 18(1), 107-114
about the authors Dr. Morten Wahrendorf is a Senior Medical Sociologist at the University Düsseldorf. Dr. Christian Deindl is a Sociologist at the University Düsseldorf.