One of the most salient aspects of the relationship between aging parents and their adult children is the nature and extent of exchanges of goods, services, and support. No matter what their age, parents and children occasionally need help; most of time, family members are asked first. Exchanges between parents and children are embedded in family and kinship relationships. The focus here will be on routine or normative kinds of exchanges between American parents and children, rather than on caregiving, which involves more systematic, extraordinary, and extensive help.
Consequences of social and demographic changes for exchanges between generations
Scholars have become particularly fascinated with exchanges between parents and children, in part because there have been a series of social changes that have altered the context of relations between parents and children and probably heightened the salience of intergenerational exchanges. First, the fact that individuals are living longer has led to several important changes to later-life family relationships. Not surprisingly, the potential for long-lasting family relationships has greatly increased. Certainly the prospects for long-lasting marriages is greater. However, these marriages have not become as commonplace as one would suppose, due to the sharp rise in divorce in the post–World War II era. The other family relationship that has been profoundly affected by declines in mortality has been parentchild relationships. It is not unusual for parents and children today to accrue fifty years or more of interwoven biographies. The majority of individuals today will spend most of their lives in a relationship with parents where they are not minors. Indeed, in an aging society like the United States, parents and children will share key adulthood transitions such as work, parenthood, retirement, and, for some, grandparenthood. These extended years of shared lives form a very different context for exchanges of support than was the case for the first half of the twentieth century. Finally, increases in longevity have changed the experience of grandparenthood—for both generations. Grandparents are much more likely to be alive and in good health for a significant part of their grandchildren's lives. Grandparenthood is also much more likely to a part of the life course of aging adults.
Second, declines in family sizes have altered the generational structure of families. The pool of potential family members "down" the generational ladder has become smaller, while the declines in mortality have worked to maintain the number of family members "up" the generational ladder. It is increasingly common today for middle-aged adults to have more living parents than children. The true force of this social change will not be felt, however, until the baby-boom generation (those born in the decade after World War II) has entered old age. The question is, will there be "enough" children available to care for this generation
Finally, the large increase in divorce has posed challenges for intergenerational exchanges. Divorced adult children often have many needs, and they often turn to their parents for help. As divorce became commonplace among young adults, intergenerational support, in the form of parent's helping children with financial assistance, housing, childcare, and emotional support became crucial. However, the proportion of aging parents who are divorced is also growing, and these parents often do not have the resources to provide needed assistance to their adult children.
Why do individuals give?
There are two theoretical explanations for why individuals give. Some scholars argue that intergenerational support can best be understood by using social exchange theory (Homans, 1958; Thibaut & Kelly, 1959), while others point to altruism as the key theoretical construct (Deutsch, 1975). A basic premise of social exchange theory is that social exchanges and interactions will continue as long as they are seen as beneficial. Intergenerational exchanges of support happen where perceived rewards are seen to offset the costs to an individual. In other words, parents give help to children with the understanding that they will get something back that is "worth" the costs of what they give. Several studies have found patterns in data on routine assistance that are consistent with this theory. For example, Glenna Spitze and John Logan (1989) found that women's investment in caregiving (direct and intensive care to a family member in need) and kin keeping activities (a range of activities from keeping in touch, relating news, or visiting, to activities that encompass exchanges of help like babysitting, loaning money, or providing emotional support) in their early and middle life course creates obligations in men and children that lead to assistance in later life. However, conclusive tests of hypotheses drawn from this theory have not yet happened, in part due to the great demands on data a careful test would require.
A second explanation of patterns of inter-generational support suggests they are largely explained by altruism. The idea is that parents and children care about each other, or at least feel some sense of responsibility toward each other, and this concern motivates parents to monitor the well-being of their children (and children to monitor the well-being of their parents) and offer assistance when they perceive that there is a need. This theoretical approach has been behind a good deal of the quantitative models of assistance rendered across generations; that is, the modeling intergenerational resource flows is largely built around variables measuring the resources and needs of each generation. However, despite the intuitive appeal of this theory, the empirical support is mixed. Research to date indicates that needs are certainly an important part of the explanation of exchanges, but providing support, and the motives behind these acts, appear to be more complex than this theory would suggest. In short, no unified theoretical explanation for intergenerational exchanges has emerged.
Factors that affect exchanges
The availability during the 1990s of large, nationally representative surveys with good questions on exchanges of support between generations has led to considerable advances in our understanding of the overall patterns of support, as well as the characteristics of families, parents, and children that effect the giving and receiving of assistance. From the perspective of the adult child, routine exchanges with parents are not all that common. The 1987–1988 National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) found that only 17 percent of adult children received money (at least $200 given or loaned in the past five years) from their parents, and only 4 percent gave money to their parents. In the month before the interview, only 13 percent of adult children received childcare, 17 percent received household assistance, and 32 percent gave household assistance. Advice and emotional support are the most common forms of exchange, with 27 percent of respondents receiving such support, and 25 percent giving such support to their parents.
This picture looks somewhat better when we take the perspective of aging parents. Parents age fifty-five and older with at least one adult child living independently report higher levels of giving and receiving assistance than their adult children report. This is to be expected, of course, given that children typically have only one set of parents with whom to engage in exchanges, while most parents can potentially draw support from several children. Giving advice and emotional support is most frequently exchanged (42 percent), followed by giving money to children (33 percent) and receiving advice and giving childcare (both 29 percent). Only one in five aging parents received assistance with household chores, transportation, or household repairs from any of their adult children during the previous month. Receiving monetary assistance is virtually unheard of (3 percent). At any given point in time, more than one-third of older adults are not involved in giving, and over 60 percent have not received anything from any of their adult children.
These relatively modest levels of routine exchanges are not due to children being unavailable—a strong majority of parents (72 percent) have at least one adult child living within twenty-five miles. Neither is it because parents and children are not in regular contact or maintain good relations—studies have shown repeatedly that parents and children maintain a high level of contact via visits, phone calls, and letter writing, and that both parents and children generally rate their relationship as positive. Rather, these levels of help appear low because routine assistance, at least in American families, tends to be episodic rather than continuous, contingent more on a particular need that suddenly arose.
These general trends obscure significant variations. Researchers have given considerable attention to race and ethnic variations in exchanges. Ethnographic studies and specialized surveys document extensive social support networks among African-American families. These findings have led some researchers to conclude that African Americans have stronger family networks than Americans of European descent. However, recent work based on nationally representative data that systematically compare kin assistance of African Americans and European Americans have generally not found superior support networks among minority families, even when socioeconomic differences are taken into account. Other scholars, noting the strong familism of Mexican Americans, have concluded from specialized surveys documenting involvement in mutual support activities that Mexican Americans have stronger kin networks than whites. However, studies that have systematically compared kin assistance among representative samples of Hispanic groups and whites have not found significant differences.
Intergenerational exchanges are affected by the gender of the participants. A large number of studies show that women are more involved than men in kin-keeping activities that structure family events and maintain contact among family members. Across generations, there is evidence that the mother-daughter tie is stronger than other parent-child relationships. However, it is not the case that men are uninvolved in exchanges. Rather, their giving tends to mirror traditional gender-role expectations—men are found to be more likely to give financial help and less likely to be providing childcare or emotional support.
Assistance that involves face-to-face interactions, such as childcare or the performance of household tasks, diminishes with physical distance. It would seem plausible that certain forms of intergenerational help, such as financial assistance or advice and emotional support, would not be affected by distance; however, research has found that distance remains a significant barrier to the exchange of aid given to children by parents, but less so for children giving aid to their parents. Perhaps children are more adept at using modern means of transportation and communication than their parents to reduce geographic barriers to rendering assistance.
Finally, one of the strongest predictors of exchanges is parental resources. Parents with the most resources (e.g., married, highly educated, high income or wealth) are significantly more likely to render help to their children.
Changes over the life course
Exchanges of assistance vary in patterned ways over the life course of both parents and children. One of the surest ways to receive parental support is to have a child. Giving to children is also affected by changes in the lives of parents. Most significantly, as parents age, they tend to give less to their children. Much of this decline in giving can be explained by factors associated with aging (e.g., declines in health, death of spouse, changing needs of children). Yet, there is evidence that this gradual decline in the likelihood of giving help to children persists even when these other factors are taken into account.
Finally, and inevitably, the death of the parent leads to an inheritance of the parent's estate. This "final" intergenerational transfer has received significantly less attention from researchers. Available evidence indicates that parents typically treat their children equally in bequests. However, at least one study shows that those who did not give equally did not systematically give more to children with lower earnings.
See also Bequests and Inheritances; Filial Obligations; Parental Obligations; Parent-Child Relationship.
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