Intergenerational Transmission

views updated May 29 2018

Intergenerational Transmission




In the social sciences, intergenerational transmission refers to the transfer of economic or social status across generations. These cross-generational transfers occur through a variety of means, including the inheritance of occupational status, educational attainment, earnings, and wealth. In a society marked by significant levels of inter-generational transmission, there will be a corresponding persistence in economic and social stratification, and a childs socioeconomic outcome will be highly predictable. While immobility is not necessarily synonymous with inequality, intergenerational transmissions can generate unequal opportunities for children born into the society. Thus, the presence of intergenerational transmissions has strong implications for public policy, and many scholars have made efforts to improve the knowledge of how and to what extent these transfers exist.


A central question in the analysis of social mobility and stratification is the extent to which advantages and disadvantages are passed from generation to generation. There is a rich history of scholarship attempting to quantify the level of intergenerational transmissions. In the 1950s sociologists improved both local data collection and mobility scales, and began to assemble intergenerational mobility tables to examine inflow and outflow percentages among different occupational classes. These classes were oftentimes highly aggregated, making it difficult to arrive at substantial conclusions on intergeneration mobility. Methodologies improved significantly in the 1960s, with the introduction of the socioeconomic index (SEI), a set of scores for occupational categories that allowed researchers to apply continuous data analysis techniques to occupational groups. In 1967 Peter Blau and Otis Dudley Duncan (creator of the SEI) published a groundbreaking work, The American Occupational Structure. In it, Blau and Duncan introduced their model of the process of stratification, which allowed for the multivariate testing of direct and indirect effects (such as education and family background) on the earnings of children. In isolating the effects of various factors on a childs occupational status, Blau and Duncan found that the ratio of education effects to fathers occupation effects on a sons current occupation is approximately 2.9 to 1, suggesting that achievement tends to be far more important than ascription in occupational outcomes.

Many scholars from around the world began to apply status-attainment models to their own intergenerational transmission analyses in the 1970s. As methodological improvements continued to be made, including the transition from multivariate linear regressions to loglinear models, a growing consensus developed that intergenerational mobility was at high levels in industrial countries. Specifically, in several Western European countries and the United States, researchers in the 1970s and 1980s consistently found intergenerational elasticity coefficients of 0.20 to 0.25 (which implies that only 20 to 25 percent of earnings gaps between groups would remain after one generation). In a 1988 address, American Economic Association president Gary Beckers comments reflected widespread sentiments at the time: In every country with data that I have seen earnings strongly regress to the mean[;] low earnings as well as high earnings are not strongly transmitted from fathers to sons.

Yet the common belief that intergenerational mobility levels were high in industrial countries would change dramatically in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Regarding the United States, specifically, recent results for elasticity coefficients suggest that intergeneration mobility is more limited than previously thought. Gary Solon (1989) argued that the low correlation between a parent and childs socioeconomic indicators was due to selection biases and poor data measurement in previous studies. By using an entire dataset from the Panel Study on Income Dynamics (as opposed to the numerous data omissions typical of previous research) and using a five-year average of fathers earnings data in lieu of the standard one-year data (to better represent lifetime earnings), Solon (1992) discovered that intergenerational elasticity coefficients rose significantly from 0.21 to 0.41. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey, David Zimmerman (1992) arrived at a similar conclusion, and in combination these two studies provided compelling evidence that after methodological corrections, intergenerational mobility was more limited than previously thought.

Many scholars have since tried to replicate and expand on Solon and Zimmermans original findings, and most have arrived at an intergeneration elasticity of about 0.4 or higher for the United States. Bhashkar Mazumder (2005) argued that the usage of five-year averages on fathers earnings is flawed because data from such a short period of time can still reflect the effects of temporary shocks, which tend to be correlated in time. Mazumder is able to average fathers earnings over sixteen years using social security earnings histories, and finds that the inter-generational elasticity between a father and a childs earnings is dramatically higher at 0.6. By contrast, researchers in other industrialized countries have typically found intergenerational elasticity coefficients that are less than in the United States. It is important, however, to note the difficulty of cross-country coefficient comparisons, because variations in earnings measures, age ranges, and other important study characteristics can be misinterpreted as differences between countries. Taking this issue into account, it appears that Sweden, Canada, and Finland enjoy more mobility than the United States, whereas Britain and France may be slightly worse. American exceptionalismthe perception that the United States is a uniquely mobile countryis largely discredited as a myth.


Scholarly evidence suggests that intergenerational mobility is highly limited, particularly in the United States, but why it is limited and how these outcomes are transmitted across generations is not clear. One theory that has garnered much attention is the human capital explanation, developed by Gary Becker and Nigel Tomes (1979, 1986). Becker and Tomes argue that the human capital acquired by children greatly affects their earnings outcomes, and that this capital is greatly affected by investment choices made by utility-maximizing families. Given a limited set of resources (time, income), parents will continue investing available resources in a child until their expected rate of return (determined by a childs ability and earnings potential) is no better than the market rate of return on investments (i.e., interest rates). Some implications of this theory are as follows: (1) Given unlimited resources, the levels of investment in a child will be determined by the childs ability; (2) the presence of credit constraints (in low-income families) will lead to reductions in child earnings and less intergenerational mobility. Several findings support the Becker-Tomes framework, most notably the evidence from cross-country comparisons suggesting that countries with high levels of educational subsidies (and therefore lower levels of credit constraints) tend to be associated with more intergenerational income mobility. However, as previously mentioned, cross-country comparisons are difficult given the variety of alternative explanations for differences, and it should be noted that the overall evidence on the human capital investment explanation is mixed.

A second economic explanation for the persistence in intergeneration immobility is the transfer of wealth in the form of inheritances. This explanation has received little attention due to the lack of panel data on respondents who have reached the age at which bequests are typically passed on. In studying the death records of wealthy Connecticut residents and their children, Paul Menchik (1979) found an intergenerational elasticity of 0.69 between child and parent wealth at death. This finding suggests that inheritances are highly important for the upper end of the income distribution. However, scholars have largely dismissed wealth as a major factor in overall intergenerational persistence of outcomes simply because most families do not pass along substantial inheritances. For example, according to Casey Mulligan (1997) only 2 to 4 percent of estates passed on from deaths in the United States between 1960 and 1995 were subject to inheritance taxes.

Several other avenues of intergenerational transfer deserve mention as alternative explanations of immobility, despite having received minimal scholarly attention. George Borjas (1992) alludes to the possibility of neighborhood effects in his assessment of the impact of parent and ethnic group successes on the wage rates and occupational statuses of first- and second-generation Americans (excluding African Americans and Native Americans). His results suggest that ethnic group effects are at least as high as parent effects on the economic successes of these immigrant children. While Borjas does not attempt to explain what underlies these group effects, several possibilities exist, including discrimination, cultural effects on behavior and personality, and unequal access to information.

If discrimination is in fact a significant explanation for intergenerational immobility, this poses a considerable challenge to a societys claim to be a meritocracy. Indeed, scholarship since The American Occupational Structure has acknowledged the unique difficulties faced by African Americans in achieving economic and social mobility. Using data from the Panel Study on Income Dynamics, Tom Hertz (2005) finds a 25 to 30 percent difference in income between the adult income of blacks and whites who grew up in households with identical long-run average incomes, even when parental levels of education were taken into account. But is this due to discrimination, or other potentially confounding factors? For example, Dalton Conley (1999) asserts that it is not race that matters in the intergenerational transmission of poverty, but rather parental assets or the class status that is typically associated with race in America. Alternatively, Thomas Sowell (1981) argues that cultural deficiencies, not market-based discrimination, explain intergroup differences in economic success. By contrast, William Darity et al. (2002) have provided some evidence that despite sharing cultural backgrounds, black Latinos suffer discriminatory wage deficiencies relative to other Latinos, indicating that color matters. Overall, controversy continues over the interpretation of racial and ethnic differences. Further analysis is required to determine the extent to which a legacy of race is reflected in economic outcomes.

While the evidence is not definitive, research suggests that levels of economic mobility across generations are low, especially in the United States. Explanations for this persistence are inconclusive, although several possibilities, including human capital, wealth, group effects, and discrimination, have received some attention. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (2002) attempt to provide a comparison of some possible causal channels of intergenerational status transmissions in the United States, and conclude that wealth, race, and schooling are important, whereas IQ and genetics are not. Though the authors acknowledge that much of the transmission process remains unclear (at least two-fifths is still unexplained in their work), their analysis serves as a model for future research. Experts hope that continued efforts in this direction will result in a better sense of how intergenerational transmissions occur, and perhaps how social inequality can be rectified.

SEE ALSO Achievement Gap, Racial; Discrimination; Human Capital; Inheritance


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Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. 2002. The Inheritance of Inequality. Journal of Economic Perspectives 16 (3): 330.

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Jeffrey K. Lee

Intergenerational Transmission

views updated Jun 11 2018

Intergenerational Transmission

Intergenerational transmission is one dimension of the larger concept of intergenerational relations. The term intergenerational relations describes a wide range of patterns of interaction among individuals in different generations of a family: for example, between those in older generations, such as parents and grandparents, aunt, uncles, and those in younger generations, such as children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews. The term is also frequently used to describe behaviors involving older and younger people in society at large, even if they are unrelated to one another. For example, media accounts describe potential issues between the attitudes and behaviors of older members of the baby boom generation and younger generation Xers.

In the context of family lives, intergenerational transmission refers to the movement, passage, or exchange of some good or service between one generation and another. What is transmitted may be intangible and include beliefs, norms, values, attitudes, and behaviors specific to that family, or that reflect sociocultural, religious, and ethnically relevant practices and beliefs. Intergenerational transmission can, however, also include the provision of resources and services or assistance by one generation to another. One example of this, illustrated by Barry McPherson (1998) is the issue of transferring the ownership and operation of the family farm from one generation to the next.

Family roles may also be transmitted from generation to generation. For example, Carolyn Rosenthal (1985) describes the roles of headship, kin keeper, confidante, and financial adviser as roles within families. This work documents how not only are these roles in themselves mechanisms for the transmission of information, advice, beliefs, values, and resources between generations, but that the roles are passed through the generations, in a form of generational succession. Rosenthal and Victor Marshall (1988) also examine the intergenerational transmission of ritual in families in a study across three generations of Canadian families.

The concept of intergenerational transmission is also used by social scientists who conduct research on family violence. For example, Ann Duffy and Julianne Momirov (2000) utilize the concept of intergenerational transmission to explain the social learning of violence within families. In this context, intergenerational transmission refers to the socialization and social learning that helps to explain the ways in which children growing up in a violent family learn violent roles and, subsequently, may play out the roles of victim or victimizer in their own adult families.

Family researchers have also studied the intergenerational transmission of difficult life course transitions like marital dissolution or divorce. In particular, studies in the United States have found that parental divorce increases the likelihood that adult children will experience separation or divorce (Glenn and Kramer 1987; Keith and Finlay 1988; Amato 1996). Even when factors such as the socioeconomic status of both parents and children are controlled for, Nicholas Wolfinger (2000) concludes that the children of parents who have had more than one marriage tend to replicate these patterns of marital instability. Multiple family structure transitions have a negative effect on children; that is, the experience of numerous parental relationship transitions is likely to result in the reproduction of these behaviors by adult children.

Cultural Transmission: Values, Norms, and Beliefs

The intergenerational stake hypothesis (Bengtson and Kuypers 1971) maintains that children and parents have different expectations and understandings of the filial relationship. While parents are concerned with the continuity and intergenerational transmission of values they have found important in life, children focus on the differences in the two generations' value systems in an attempt to establish independence from their parents.

The importance of gender differences in the intergenerational transmission of roles is highlighted in Alice Rossi's (1993) study on the application of the intergenerational stake hypothesis in a study comparing men and women. Rossi notes two key reasons why women have a greater investment in maintaining relationships with their children than do men. First, women function as primary family caregivers in later life. Second, different socialization experiences result in motherhood assuming a more central role in the lives of women than fatherhood does in the lives of men; that is, as women are socialized to be more expressive than men and are more likely to assume the "kin-keeper" role in the family.

In addition to gender, ethnicity is another important factor in the investigation of intergenerational transmission over the life course. For example, much research on Asian immigrant family values has been based on the conception of Asian North Americans as having ideal families. This conception has emerged from the "model minority" myth, a stereotype that attributes the educational and occupational success of Asian North Americans to adherence to traditional Asian cultural value systems (Takaki 1989). The ideal family myth assumes that Asian North Americans, regardless of generation or ethnocultural group, greatly revere older family members and feel strongly obligated to provide support to them (Ishii-Kuntz 1997; Osako 1979). Asian–North American families are believed to have been particularly successful in the intergenerational transmission of the values associated with reverence for elders and filial piety.

Yoshinori Kamo and Min Zhou (1994) attributed the prevalence of Asian-American coresidence among married adult children and older parents to the strong influence of filial obligation. Co-residence, however, is only an example of behaviorally oriented and intergenerationally transmitted values of filial piety (Sung 1995); that is, coresidence alone does not provide support for the hypothesis that Asian–North American adult children necessarily provide more love and affection (emotionally oriented filial piety) to their aging parents than do adult children in other ethnic groups. In addition, these findings do not take into account generational differences in the intergenerational transmission and retention of traditional values in post-immigrant Asian–North American families.

An early example of intergenerational value transmission research, Minako Maykovich's (1980) study of acculturation and familism in three generations of Japanese Canadians, found significant intergenerational differences in the retention of traditional family values. Her conclusions support Gordon's theoretical proposition that acculturation is a multiphase process, whether it is measured by the retention of traditional familism or the adoption of "new world" values. Similarly, Pamela Sugiman and Harry Nishio's (1983) study of socialization and cultural duality among aging Japanese Canadians concludes that, in contrast to the traditional age-related norms of the issei (first generation), middle-aged nisei (second generation) parents demonstrate a decreased dependence on their children for support in later life. Victor Ujimoto (1987) attributes this change in support expectations to generational differences in the retention of traditional first generation values.

In a study on intergenerational relationships in Japanese-Canadian families, an exploration of the factors affecting social support from children to parents, Karen Kobayashi (2000) finds that adherence to the traditional issei value of oya koh koh (filial obligation) has a significant effect on children's provision of emotional support to parents in later life families. She concludes that despite the cultural transformation of values such as oya koh koh by successive generations of nisei and sansei children, filial obligation still remains important in the decision-making process around support for aging parents.

According to Tamara Hareven (1994), generational differences in value perceptions are due to changes in the timing of life-course events for parents and children. Instead of timing events in concert with the family's collective needs, children now display a more individualized timing regulated to their specific age norms. Hareven's (1994) research indicates that if parents and children have a strong filial relationship characterized by satisfaction on the part of both parties, it is more likely that children will use the collective needs of the family to guide the timing of their life-course events and hence, minimize the differences in value system perceptions. This may be especially true in adult children's adherence to filial obligation.

Social Support

Much of the mainstream literature on family relationships in later life has examined the intergenerational transmission of the tangible services or support that adult children, particularly daughters, provide to older parents as caregivers (e.g., Burton 1996; McMullin and Marshall 1995). Given this focus, it is not surprising that many studies report a negative relationship between parental dependency and quality of the parent-child relationship (Baruch and Barnett 1983; Brody 1985; Mindel and Wright 1982). In a study on the factors that predispose adult sons and daughters to provide support to older parents, Merril Silverstein and colleagues (1995) found that intergenerational affection was the factor that most motivates daughters, while sons are primarily motivated by filial obligation, legitimation of inheritance, and frequency of contact.

Research on the transmission of support in ethnic minority families has focused on varying issues depending on the ethnic group(s) under study. For example, many studies on African- and Hispanic-American intergenerational relations in later life families have examined social support according to such demographic indicators as socioeconomic status (Mindel et al. 1988; Moynihan 1965; Mutran 1986). This focus has excluded the exploration of key intergenerational issues, such as the impact of changing value systems on supportive attitudes and behaviors in adult children. A growing body of comparative research on later life support in Asian-Canadian families is promising in that it acknowledges intergenerational differences in the intergenerational transmission of, and adherence to, values such as filial obligation (Sugiman and Nishio 1983; Ujimoto 1987).

Most of the support literature on the later life family focuses on the one-way flow of support from adult children to older parents, neglecting issues around the intergenerational transmission of support that parents provide to children (Connidis et al. 1996; Ishii-Kuntz 1997; Kahn and Antonucci 1981). In an attempt to address this imbalance, Teresa Cooney and Peter Uhlenberg (1992) examined the changes in three types of parent-to-child support (emotional, financial, and service) that occur as parents and adult children age over the life course. They report a decline in transmission of support from parents to children after children reached the age of thirty, but that the pattern of decline varied according to the type of support. In addition, they stated that while parents, "may not assume active, regular supportive roles in their children's lives, they are widely viewed by their children as valued and dependable sources of support should a need for help arise" (Cooney and Uhlenberg 1992, p. 82). This view holds true for adult children across the life course, and reflects a difference between actual versus potential or latent intergenerational transmission of support.

Intergenerational Solidarity

The concept of family solidarity or cohesion, as proposed by Vern Bengtson and his colleagues (1985), has been the focus of much research into intergenerational transmission over the past two decades. Theoretically grounded in the life-course perspective, it focuses on six dimensions of solidarity: family structure; associational solidarity (the degree to which members of a lineage are in contact with one another and engage in shared behavior and common activities); affectual solidarity (the degree of positive sentiment expressed in the intergenerational relationship); consensual solidarity (the degree of consensus or conflict in beliefs or orientations external to the family); functional solidarity (the degree to which financial assistance and service exchanges occur among family members); and normative solidarity (the norms of familism held by family members, in terms of expectations of proximity and assistance.

A number of studies have attempted to address some of the shortcomings of the original solidarity model. Robert E. Roberts and Bengtson's (1990) examination of intergenerational family relationships includes a number of additional dimensions of family cohesion. In adding filial responsibility, dependency needs, experiences not shared across generations, residential propinquity, gender linkage of pair, and helping behavior, they acknowledge the complexity of parent-child relationships in later life. The results indicate that intergenerational solidarity in later life is not a unidimensional construct, and that each component is determined by different variables. Also, Leora Lawton and her colleagues (1994) use a gendered analysis to examine family solidarity in intergenerational pairs of family members. Their study finds that gender, marital status of parent, education, and race are key factors in cohesion between parents and children, and that the influence of a grandparent during childhood is "associated with more frequent contact, emotional closeness, and shared opinions in the child's adult years" (Lawton, Silverstein, and Bengston 1994, p. 42). Inasmuch as these studies attempt to explain later life patterns of intergenerational family solidarity, however, they are limited by their inattention to the historical, cultural, and social structural forces that shape family relationships and patterns of intergenerational transmission along solidarity dimensions.


As it is often used in the literature, the concept of intergenerational transmission is frequently narrow in its application. For example, it is often used to imply a one-way flow: the transmission of resources from an older generation to a younger, or the intergenerational transmission of beliefs and attitudes of one generation to another. This is by no means the case, however. While reciprocity is a distinct concept, it is an integral part of intergenerational relations and intergenerational transmission.

A second limitation is that the concept of intergenerational transmission is almost exclusively applied to flows and transfers, particularly financial, down the generations, from older to younger generations. Except in the extensive gerontological literature on caregiving (which focuses almost exclusively on what family members in mid-life do to assist their frail and aging parent or parents), there is little consideration of the intergenerational transmission of values up the lineage from younger to older generations.

A third limitation is the infrequency with which the concept of intergenerational transmission is utilized to describe relations between generations that are non-contiguous, or that represent "skipped" generations. For example, while there is considerable research on parent-child relations, there is much less research on grandparent-grandchild relations (although there is some literature on the role of grandparents in raising grandchildren in families where the middle generation is, for reasons of divorce, addiction, or disability, unable to do so).

See also:Acculturation; Elders; Ethnic Variation/Ethnicity; Family Folklore; Grandparenthood; Intergenerational Programming; Intergenerational Relations; Socioeconomic Status


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anne martin-matthews

karen m. kobayashi

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