Parental working hours and the rising prevalence of obesity over time: a cross-cohort analysis

This project sits under the Health strand and is led by Emla Fitzsimons. The prevalence of childhood overweight and obesity has soared in recent decades. Over the same period, the typical household has seen overall increases in parental working hours.  This project will answer the following research questions:

Research questions:

1.      How have changes in parental employment affected childhood weight?

2.      Has this effect been changing over the last 5 decades? If so, why?


The project will use data from three birth cohort studies spanning the past five decades; the 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS), the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) and the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). It will utilise a mixture of modelling to estimate whether there is a causal relationship between parental employment and childhood obesity, and to quantify its magnitude. The cohort studies are ideally placed to answer this question, as they contain detailed information on parental working hours from childhood, alongside measured body mass index (BMI) at different ages. Previous research has used these data to look at the role of modifiable risk factors, such as diet and physical activity, in the evolution of overweight and some have also looked specifically at the role of employment.

 Contribution to the field:

This is the first time that causal effects of parental employment on children’s weight will have been estimated, alongside investigating the mechanisms, and therefore adds an important dimension to this field. In addition, applying a consistent approach across all three cohorts to answer the principal research question (1) is not only novel, but crucial for further cross-cohort comparisons and to give weight to the evidence base.

Furthermore, there are several potential policy implications of this research. One is that programmes to tackle the growing incidence of childhood overweight, such as access to healthier foods and physical exercise, could be better tailored to meet the demands of working parents. A second is that preschool childcare settings, which are used by a growing number of families for extended periods each day, may be an increasingly important target for promoting early healthy behaviours.


October 1, 2016 - December 2018

Project Team:

  • Emla Fitzsimons (Lead)
  • Ludovica Gambaro (CLS)
  • Praveetha Patalay (CLS)
  • Benedetta Pongiglione