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Intergenerational Relations

Intergenerational Relations

Intergenerational relations refer to the ties between individuals or groups of different ages. Family circumstances and the decisions made by members of one generation within the family have implications for the development of members within the same generation and for members of other generations.

Family Structure

Family structures changed considerably in the twentieth century. There were changes in patterns of living arrangements, divorce and remarriage, decreases in fertility, and increases in women's labor force participation. Each of these has the potential to affect intergenerational relations.

Many individuals have delayed both marriage and childbearing in order to spend more time pursuing educational goals. Starting a family later, coupled with decreased fertility, means that families are smaller today than at any point in the past, and the typical pattern is fewer children spaced more closely together in age than in previous generations. This results in what Vern Bengtson, Carolyn Rosenthal, and Linda Burton (1990) refer to as the beanpole family, in which each generation is smaller, with more years between each generation, but more generations are alive at any one time. The rise in rates of teenage pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births has, to some extent, mitigated this trend, which Bengtson and his colleagues (1990) refer to as age-compressed families. It is unclear how the nature of intergenerational ties may be affected by these changing family structures, and whether fewer and more enduring ties might lead to increased closeness between generations or serve instead to accentuate any conflict between generations (Bengtson, Rosenthal, and Burton 1996).

The changing structure of intergenerational relationships in the United States is further complicated by increases in rates of divorce and remarriage. Divorce rates roughly doubled between 1970 and 1990 (Cherlin 1992; Martin and Bumpass 1989) and have remained consistently high; more than half of all first marriages end in divorce. Most individuals who divorce eventually remarry, and divorce rates among subsequent marriages are even higher than for first marriages. Marital dissolution and reconstitution affect intergenerational ties in ways that are only now beginning to be fully appreciated. For example, due to the cumulative effects of families being formed, dissolved, and reconstituted an older adult may find himself or herself embedded in a complex web of ties with biological children, stepchildren, and children-inlaw. Given that a majority of baby boomers can expect to find themselves in one of these complex family forms, it is important to learn more about how these marital transitions affect the availability of support for future generations of older adults.

One final trend in families is the increase in women's labor force participation. Women now work outside of the home in the vast majority of households. This labor force participation has implications for the individual's or couple's timing of retirement, wealth upon retirement, parent-child relationships, and the availability of family caregivers for frail older adults (e.g., Zarit and Eggebeen 1995).

Heng-Wei Chen and Merril Silverstein (2000) remark that modifications in family and household structures resulting from economic development in contemporary China have broken down the extended family living households. With smaller households and an increase in nuclear families, a new type of living arrangement has evolved—the network family—in which married adult children, rather than coresiding, tend to live near their older parents so as to provide assistance to the older adults. Cross-national work on the relationship between family and state systems of care reveals families are likely to continue to provide high levels of assistance to older adults through adaptations of family functioning (Davey and Patsios 1999; Davey et al. 1999).

Living Arrangements

Changes in demography and family structure have shaped the living arrangements of both the elderly and adult children. Although these changes vary across countries and cultures, the latter half of the twentieth century was characterized by declining household size and an increase in nuclear families.

Lower fertility and increased migration have shrunk the average household size in both developed and developing countries and led to more dispersed family networks, whereas the proportion of people living alone in single-person households is mounting. The sources for these trends include normative changes, such as delayed marriage and changing gender roles, as well as higher rates of marital dissolution and growing numbers of elderly persons whose spouses have died.

The most striking change in household arrangements in developed countries has been a drift towards single-person households. Tracing the historical trends in family living arrangements, Gerdt Sundstrom (1993) found that Western countries and Japan have shown declines in the proportion of older people living with their children since 1950. This is particularly true for the older people in Sweden, who are more likely to live alone than elders in the United States (40% compared to 30%). In the early 1950s, for example, 27 percent of elderly Swedes lived with their children compared to 33 percent in the United States. Now, the rate of cohabitation of older people with their children had fallen to roughly 5 percent in Sweden compared with 15 percent in the United States.

The probability of living alone increases with age, even though there might be a decline for the oldest ages. Because women on average outlive men and tend to be younger than their spouses, it is not surprising to find that in all older age groups the percentage of women living alone is usually higher than that of men. It has been recognized that older men in the United States almost certainly live with a spouse, even in very late life. In contrast, women are most likely to live alone or with their children (Himes, Hogan, and Eggebeen 1996).

Despite the high proportion of the elderly who live alone in developed countries, a majority of those aged sixty-five and over live with others. Recent cohorts of young adults have postponed nest-leaving and an increasing number of adult children return to the parental home during periods of transition, economic hardship, or marital problems. Obviously, in these cases coresidence is a response to the needs of adult children, rather than caregiving for parents. Sons are found to be more likely than daughters to delay nest-leaving or to return to the parental home (Goldscheider and Goldscheider 1994). Moreover, Alwin Duane (1996) found that there is a trend towards the acceptability of coresidence and that the younger cohorts were more approving of coresidence with aged parents as compared to the elders themselves. This could be because coresidency comes across as a more positive experience for the adult children (Ward and Spitze 1996). Parental coresidence is more prevalent among men and women raised by single or remarried mothers and men living with single fathers, and less common among individuals living with remarried fathers (Szinovacz 1997).

Living patterns are important because they affect the exchange of help and support and also reflect cultural preferences. For instance, parent-child proximity in the United Kingdom may be more likely to arise from the needs of the older generation, whereas in Italy strong cultural norms pertaining to mutual aid between parents and children may be the rationale for cultural proximity and— often—coresidence (Glaser and Tomassini 2000).

An examination of living arrangements of the elderly in developing countries shows that relatively few elderly individuals live alone. Nearly three out of four Koreans aged sixty years and over live with their children. Korean parents are more likely to live with sons than daughters, and are also more likely to live with married children (Won and Lee 1999). Akiko Hashimoto (1991) examined seven different developing countries—Brazil, Egypt, India, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Zimbabwe—and found that older parents maintained coresidence with their adult children despite changing socioeconomic and demographic conditions. Among these countries, India, Singapore, Thailand, and South Korea showed the highest incidence of coresidence between older parents and married children and lowest in Egypt and Brazil.

Intergenerational Norms and Exchanges

Bengtson's theory of intergenerational solidarity (Mangen, Bengtson, and Landry 1988) points to the many ways in which generations relate to one another in terms of living arrangements (structural), shared values (normative), norms (consensual), contact (associational), closeness (affectual), and instrumental support (functional). Older generations are generally perceived to invest in younger generations (generational stake) because resources are often seen to flow down from an older to younger generations. More recent explanations of intergenerational relations have focused on differences in needs and resources of each generation, emerging perspectives recognizing positive and negative, conflictual and consensual, aspects of intergenerational relationships are further advancing our understanding of the variability in ties between generations. For instance, Adam Davey and Joan Norris (1998) studied younger and older adults' perceptions of the availability of support from specific members of their social support network, along with the perceived costs of seeking support from those individuals. Within close relationships, individuals reported expecting to receive support contingent on need. Likewise, expectations for short-term reciprocity, considered as the costs of seeking assistance, were low. Findings also indicated that expectations for support and reciprocity differed between close relationships and those that were not as close. There is also evidence that older adults make distinctions along these dimensions in close relationships to a greater extent than younger adults. Because individuals' social resources may decline with age, it has been suggested that they will place greater importance on their closest relationships, compared with those that are not as central in their social networks.

Important differences in filial expectations were found among African Americans, who have higher filial responsibility expectations than European Americans (Lee, Peek, and Coward 1998). Likewise, in many Asian countries, the flow of intergenerational financial support and personal assistance is expected to come from the adult children to older parents. Lee Lillard and Robert Willis (1997) found that the dominant direction of monetary transfers between non-coresident parents and children in Malaysia is from younger to the older generations. Traditional familial norms of filial piety among the Chinese reinforce the obligation adult children have to their older parents.

Understanding individuals' perceptions of support in close relationships is certainly important, but is there evidence that, in times of need, adult children do in fact provide assistance in a manner consistent with the contingent exchange perspective? David Eggebeen and Adam Davey (1998) examined this question by bringing longitudinal data to bear on the issue. Beyond midlife (over age fifty), individuals commonly experience transitions such as loss of spouse, decreases in health status, increases in functional limitations, and substantial drops (i.e., greater than 50%) in income. In the U.S. National Survey of Families and Households, nearly two-thirds of individuals over age fifty experienced one or more such events over a five-year period. In addition, each transition (27% of the total sample experienced more than one) was associated with an increased probability that parents would receive assistance from at least one adult child. This was true for any form of assistance (i.e., help with shopping, help with the activities of daily life [ADLs], and the hours of help received). Only receipt of help around the house and receipt of advice were not associated with the number of transitions. These results speak to the power of social norms for the intergenerational provision of support contingent on need. In addition, these norms seem more powerful than either beliefs or expectations regarding intergenerational support.

Similar findings were seen in a cross-cultural study by Karen Glaser and Cecilia Tomassini (2000), who found that parent-child proximity in the United Kingdom may be more likely to arise from the needs of the older generation, especially health. In comparison, parent-child proximity in Italy may reflect a cultural preference regardless of need. Similarly, in China the network family that emerged due to demographic, economic, and housing changes is another example of where married children tend to live near their older parents not because of needs but because of norms and culture.

How support is given and received may have consequences for the mental health and well-being of older adults—over and above the effects of the events that elicit such support. Davey and Eggebeen (1998) found that older adults who were overbenefited in relationships with an adult child reported greater depression than would be expected based on their previous levels of functioning. This is in direct contrast to the predictions of social exchange theory and only partially consonant with the predictions of equity theory (which suggests that both underbenefit and overbenefit will be psychologically detrimental). In contrast, Davey and Eggebeen (1998) found evidence for the importance of contingent exchange. Although receipt of contingent assistance is beneficial, there may be negative psychological consequences of providing assistance around one's own needs.

In developing countries (e.g., China), the opportunity for receiving support in old age from adult children is crucial for parental happiness. Older parents benefit from receiving both emotional and financial support from children, whereas only the provision of instrumental support—but not financial support—to adult children improved the morale of the two generations (Chen and Silverstein 2000). Moreover, providing support to adult children was shown to be important for psychological health in later life. This could be because it boosts the parents' power in the family and reinforces their ability to reciprocate in exchanges with children. The childcare and household services that older parents are able to provide to the adult children can serve as reciprocity for financial resources derived from children.

There is consistent evidence that marital disruption leads to a decrease in contact, diminishes the quality of relationships, and decreases the support exchanged between the two generations. These effects differed for mothers and fathers. Paul Amato, Sandra Rezac, and Alan Booth (1995) used longitudinal data to examine the effect of marital quality, divorce, and remarriage on the exchange of assistance. They found that divorce reduced helping between fathers and offspring, but not between mothers and children. Although single mothers received more help, they gave less to their children than mothers in first marriages. It is interesting to note that remarried mothers gave as much assistance as first-married mothers, but they received significantly less help. A study by Frank Furstenberg, Saul Hoffman, and Laura Shreshta (1995) confirms that it is essential to take the timing of the divorce into account when studying the differences between men and women in this context. Parental divorce when children are young adults does not predict differences in intergenerational ties by gender of the parent, although the effects of divorce could be stronger for fathers than mothers.

The existence of grandchildren also affects exchange relationships between aging parents and their adult children, and the position of the generations in the life-course plays an important role in understanding the pattern of exchanges. Merril Silverstein and Anne Marenco (2001) found that younger grandparents are more inclined to live closer to and have greater contact with grandchildren. Younger grandparents often baby-sit and share recreational activities with them. Older grandparents tended to provide financial assistance and more strongly identified with the role. In a recently completed review of the literature about grandparents who care for grandchildren, Anne Pebley and Laura Rudkin (1999) stated that in 1995 approximately 5.6 percent of children lived in their grandparents' households. (These figures include grandchildren living in grandparents' homes with one or both parents present.) The probability is higher for African Americans, Hispanics, and the poor to be in a custodial care household with grandparents bearing most of the responsibility in raising of the grandchildren. Although most grandparents report that they enjoy the experience, the grandparents who considered themselves as "off time" or "non-normative" experienced the strain of role overload (Burton 1996).

Intergenerational ties remain important throughout the life-course. They play an important role in developed and developing nations, Eastern and Western cultures, and have implications for the health and well-being of each generation involved. The structure of intergenerational ties suggests that they are highly adaptive across sweeping demographic and social structural changes.

See also:Clan; Divorce: Effects on Parents; Elder Abuse; Elders; Extended Families; Family Stories and Myths; Filial Responsibility; Grandparenthood; Grandparents' Rights; Inheritance; In-Law Relationships; Intergenerational Programming; Intergenerational Transmission; Kinship; Later Life Families; Retirement; Social Exchange Theory


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