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Intergenerational Relations

INTERGENERATIONAL RELATIONS

Throughout recorded history, concern has been expressed about relations among the generations. Historians have identified changing patterns of relationships between the old and the young, pointing out that in some epochs veneration of the aged was common, while in other eras, the aged were more likely to be held up to scorn and ridicule. In contemporary American society, these contrasts are muted, and themes of both consensus and conflict are present.

Sociologists have explored intergenerational relations extensively, using both macrosociological and microsociological approaches. Scholars who have taken a macrosociological approach have examined the discontinuity caused by the succession of different groups of individuals who were born during the same time period and therefore age together (Foner 1986). Sociologists refer to such groups as "cohorts." Many important questions have been raised regarding relations among cohorts, including: How do people differ as a result of membership in a specific cohort? How and why do cohorts come into conflict with one another? Does a "generation gap" exist?

In contrast, sociologists who have taken a microsociological approach have focused on intergenerational relations within families. These scholars have examined the content and quality of relationships among family members in different generations, posing such questions as: How much contact do adult children have with their parents? What kinds of exchanges occur between older and younger generations? What is the role of grandparents in families? Under what circumstances does conflict among the generations in families occur? To fully understand intergenerational relations, it is essential to study both levels and to draw connections between them.


MACROSOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES

Mannheim's View of Generations. Karl Mannheim provided one of the most enduring analyses of relations between cohorts (he used the term "generation," however, instead of the contemporary sociological term "cohort"). Mannheim argued that the individuals born into a given cohort experience the same set of sociopolitical events while they are growing up; this distinguishes them as a special social group. Merely by their location in a given cohort, members are likely to have certain similarities, since they are endowed with "a common location in the historical process" (1952, p. 290).

Thus, position within a cohort—like position within the socioeconomic structure—limits members to a narrow range of possible experiences and predisposes them to characteristic modes of thought. These differences can lead to conflict between the cohorts, as younger cohorts try to impose their views on society. The older cohort, on the other hand, has a major stake in preserving the existing social order. The interaction between these divergent cohort groups, according to Mannheim, is a critically important aspect of human social life.

To be sure, Mannheim did not compare belonging to a cohort with belonging to a more concrete group—such as a family—in that a cohort lacks a clear organizational framework. Further, he noted that differences may exist within cohorts. That is, within the same cohort, subgroups (in Mannheim's terms, "generational units") can form that are different from, and may even be antagonistic toward, one another. Nevertheless, Mannheim viewed location in a cohort as a powerful influence on people's lives in much the same way that class position is an influence on their lives. This concern with the continual succession of cohorts, and its effects on social life, has found its clearest contemporary expression in age-stratification theory.

Age-Stratification Theory. Age-stratification theory begins with the fundamental assumption that to understand intercohort relations, we need to see society as stratified by age. Consistent with Mannheim, this view holds that society is divided into a hierarchy of socially recognized age strata. Each stratum consists of members who are similar in age and whose behavior is governed by the same set of norms for behavior appropriate for their age group. Further, members of various age strata differ in their abilities to obtain and control social resources. For example, young people in most societies have less power and fewer resources than middle-aged adults.

The duties, obligations, and privileges associated with age strata vary according to individual attributes, but they are always influenced by the structural aspect of age. Thus, various cohorts in a society may have greatly divergent views on filial responsibility, expectations for independence of children, and values on other issues.

Sociologists see such differences among cohorts as the basis for possible conflicts of interest in society. In fact, conflict regarding continuity and discontinuity has been a major theme in macrosociological approaches to intergenerational relations. As Vern Bengtson (1989, p. 26) notes, members of the older cohort desire continuity: They want to transmit to younger cohorts "what is best in their own lives." Correspondingly, they fear discontinuity: that young people will choose to live by very different sets of values. What has come to be known as the "problem of generations" reflects "the tension between continuity and change, affirmation and innovation, in the human social order over time" (Bengtson 1989, p. 26).

As an example, an age-stratification perspective on intergenerational relations can be applied to the political realm. When the age-stratification system is viewed as analogous to other stratification systems (e.g., class or gender), it follows that group solidarity may develop within each age cohort and that conflict—both overt conflict and conflict of interests—may occur between two different cohorts.

On a basic level, members of older and younger cohorts find different political issues more salient; for example, the elderly are more likely to focus on old-age pensions and health benefits, while the young are concerned with issues such as educational loans or the military draft (Riley et al. 1988). Such differences in salience may result in differences in voting behavior; for example, older individuals may be less likely to support tax increases for educational spending (Button 1992).

Political ideology among older and younger cohorts has been examined, with the fairly consistent finding that the current aged cohort is generally more conservative than younger cohorts. (However, these cross-sectional differences do not highlight the fact that people change their political attitudes over time, in line with changes in the society as a whole; for a discussion of political shifts during the life course, see Alwin 1998.)

Do divergent interests and attitudes result in age-related collective political action? Sociologists have examined whether the aged constitute a self-defined political group that sets its agenda against those of other age strata. This question may be particularly important because studies have shown that older people are more likely to register and vote than younger individuals (Binstock 1997). Certainly Washington politicians and the media view the elderly as a political powerhouse; however, it is not clear that a voting block can be organized around old-age interests, as political attitudes vary greatly within the cohort. In addition, the elderly are a heterogeneous group; there are differences in socioeconomic status and racial and ethnic background within the aged cohort. Finally, the interests of the "young-old" (65–75) may differ from those of the "old-old" (over 75), with the former more concerned with retirement issues, income maintenance, and leisure opportunities, and the latter more interested in funding for medical services and long-term care. The overall evidence shows that the aged are willing to act together on some issues (like Social Security) but not on others.

A political development of the 1990s, however, may create more polarization among cohorts and thus lead to an upswing in age-based politics. This is the rising concern over "generational equity." Gordon Streib and Robert Binstock (1988) have summarized the issue in the following way. The elderly in developed nations were seen as a disadvantaged group from the 1950s to the early 1970s. They were portrayed as having low economic and social status, compared with younger persons. However, by the late 1970s, some scholarly and popular literature began to assert that old people had in fact overbenefited, and the elderly came to be seen as potentially burdensome economically to younger generations.

The older generation has at times been viewed as a scapegoat for a number of problems (Binstock 1983). In particular, the elderly have come to be seen as demanding resources for themselves, thus depriving children of quality schooling, health care, and other services. Organizations have arisen whose goal is to advocate the interests of the young at the expense of the older cohort. These groups have the expressed goal of establishing "generational equity," by transferring resources back to the young.

In the face of such attacks, it is conceivable that the elderly will begin to coalesce into a more unified generational unit. However, in response to these claims, a countermovement has developed that encourages cooperation among advocates for youth and the elderly. On the level of practice, this interest has led to the development of intergenerational programs that bring old and young together.

While the macrosociological approach just discussed provides important insights into intergenerational relations and has obvious relevance for public policy on aging issues, it is also important to examine intergenerational relations on the microsocial level.


MICROSOCIOLOGICAL APPROACHES: A FOCUS ON THE FAMILY

Many sociologists have also focused on the smaller world of the family in an attempt to further our understanding of intergenerational relations. The family resembles the larger society, in that it is the locus of both intergenerational consensus and conflict. There is considerable family solidarity, indicated by feelings of affection and attachment that result from a shared history and close contact (Bengtson et al. 1990; Silverstein and Bengtson 1997), as well as inequalities of power and social resources. These twin themes of solidarity and conflict are evident throughout sociological research on the topic.

The way in which these themes are worked out in families has been affected by the dramatic changes in the age structure of American society. In particular, average life span has increased, which means that family members will spend more time than ever before occupying intergenerational family roles. Further, increased life expectancy leads to a greater likelihood that families will spend longer periods of time caring for disabled elderly relatives.

Societal changes have also increased the complexity of intergenerational relations. For example, the high divorce rate found in contemporary American society raises the likelihood that adult children will return to their parents' homes, often bringing their own young children with them. Women's unprecedented participation in the labor force and their return to college in great numbers may also affect intergenerational relations. To be sure, the acquisition of these nonfamilial roles provides new and enriching opportunities for women; however, it may alter the time that has traditionally been devoted to "kinkeeping" between the generations.

It is only possible to comment on a few major themes in this review. The most widely studied area is that of parent–child relations in later life, including patterns of intergenerational contact and factors that affect the quality of adult child–elderly parent relationships.

Contact Between Parents and Children. A major concern of researchers has been to understand patterns of contact between adult children and older parents. Research on this issue has gone through two major phases. First, there was a period in which the nuclear family was held to be isolated. This view was based in part on Talcott Parsons's analyses of family relations, which held that modernization had brought about the decline of the extended family (DeWit and Frankel 1988). During this period, it was widely believed that because of the geographic mobility of children, families abandoned their elderly relatives. This view also held that most elderly persons rarely saw their children and that family members no longer provided care for older relatives (Shanas 1979).

In the second phase, many prominent researchers devoted considerable effort to demonstrating that this view is inaccurate. Investigators such as Ethel Shanas, Marvin Sussman, and Eugene Litwak, as well as later researchers, clearly established that older persons have frequent contact with family members and that few are totally isolated from kin. Further, most aged family members are involved in a network of emotionally and instrumentally supportive relationships.

Studies have shown that in most cases parents and adult children have relatively frequent and regular contact (Umberson 1992); in fact, 40 to 50 percent of adult children see their parents at least once a week (Rossi and Rossi 1990). A major factor in determining the frequency of contact is physical proximity. Numerous studies have found that the frequency of intergenerational contact is greatly affected by geographical distance between households, with more distant children interacting less often with parents (cf. Eggebeen 1992). However, it is clear that many geographically distant children continue to interact to a significant degree with parents and that parents and children are able to maintain close ties despite being separated by great distances.

Determinants of Quality of Parent–Child Relationships. Researchers have moved beyond simply establishing patterns of contact to examining factors that affect the quality of parent–child relations in later life. For a review of this literature, see Suitor and colleagues (1995). A number of factors appear to have an impact on relationship quality.

Increased parental dependency is frequently cited as a factor that negatively affects the quality of aged parent–adult child relations. Studies have highlighted imbalanced exchanges and perceptions of inequity between the generations as major causes of family disharmony. For example, several investigations have suggested that an increase in parents' dependence upon their adult children may reduce positive feelings between the generations. Other studies have found that adult children's feelings of closeness and attachment are reduced when parents' health declines. As parents' health deteriorates, adult children are likely to need to increase their levels of support to previously independent parents, as well as to accept a lessening or termination of the parents' provision of support—thus disrupting the previously established flow of support between the generations.

A second factor affecting parent–child relations is gender. Research has shown that women tend to have stronger and more supportive ties with parents than do men (Silverstein et al. 1995; Spitze et al. 1994). Further, studies of the effects of gender consistently demonstrate stronger affectional ties between mothers and daughters than any other combination (Rossi and Rossi 1990). Mothers report more positive affect with adult daughters than sons and are more likely to rely on daughters than sons as confidantes and comforters. Daughters in turn report greater feelings of closeness to mothers and are more likely to turn to them as confidantes than to fathers.

Third, the age of the child affects relationships with parents. Theories of adult development and intergenerational relations lead to the expectation that a child's age will be negatively related to parent–child conflict and positively related to closeness. This literature suggests that maturational changes are likely to reduce differences between parents and adult children, thus minimizing the bases for conflict between them. For example, Bengtson (1979) suggests that as children mature, their orientations become more similar to those of their parents. Similarly, Gunhild Hagestad (1987) posits both that differences between parents and children become muted across time and that there is greater tolerance for differences that remain. Empirical findings have consistently supported these assertions.

Fourth, changes in the degree of status similarity between adult children and their parents may affect their relationship. In particular, some studies have found a pattern of increased closeness in intergenerational relations when children begin to share a larger number of adult statuses with their parents. For example, the mother–daughter relationship appears to assume greater importance from the daughters' perspective when they themselves become mothers (Spitze et al. 1994; Umberson 1992). Conversely, decreases in status similarity may negatively affect adult child–parent relations. For example, the status dissimilarity that develops when daughters surpass their mothers educationally may have particular potential for creating difficulties between the generations (Suitor 1987). For a review of research regarding parent–child relationships across the life course, see Pillemer and Suitor (1998) and Suitor and colleagues (1995).

Two other areas that have received considerable attention are relations with grandparents in the family and the importance of changing dependencies among the generations over the life course.

Grandparenthood. In recent years, sociologists have shown increasing interest in studying the role of grandparents in families (see Robertson 1995 for a review of contemporary grandparenting). The demographic shifts noted above have brought about changes in the nature of grandparenthood in several ways. First, more people now survive to become grandparents than ever before. Second, the entry into grandparenthood is likely to occur in midlife, rather than in old age; thus, the duration of grandparenthood may extend to four decades or more. Third, the role of grandparent is not clearly defined in American society, and the normative expectations, privileges, and obligations are ambiguous (Hagestad 1985).

Studies have revealed several consistent findings about grandparenthood. Contrary to popular stereotypes, most grandparents do not wish to take on a parental role toward their grandchildren. Rather, they generally prefer a more distant role in the grandchildren's lives. Nevertheless, grandparents are often a critical resource for families in times of trouble (Hogan et al. 1993).

Perhaps the most consistent finding in more than a quarter-century of research is diversity in grandparenting styles. A number of typologies have been identified, which usually array grandparents along a continuum from intense involvement and assumption of parental responsibilities, on the one hand, to relative alienation from grandchildren, on the other (Neugarten and Weinstein 1964).

The most ambitious study to date used a representative survey to examine styles of grandparenting and to uncover factors that determine the adoption of a particular style (Cherlin and Furstenberg 1986). Andrew Cherlin and Frank Furstenberg were able to identify five basic grandparenting styles. Detached grandparents have little contact with their grandchildren. Passive grandparents visit somewhat more frequently but carefully maintain a distance from their grandchildren's lives. Supportive grandparents have more contact and focus on providing services to the grandchildren. Authoritative grandparents exert parent-like influence to a relatively great degree. Finally, influential grandparents combine involvement both by providing services and by adopting a parental role.

Cherlin and Furstenberg found that geographical distance was the most critical factor in determining which style of grandparenting developed. Detached grandparents were much more likely to live far away, while the most involved grandparents lived in close proximity to the grandchildren. Further, grandparents practiced "selective investment" in their grandchildren. They had more intense relationships with some grandchildren and more distant relationships with others. Other studies have affirmed this finding and have also pointed to the importance of gender: Grandmothers tend to have closer relationships with grandchildren than grandfathers.

Research interest has also highlighted the effects of children's marital disruption on the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. Despite suggestions in the popular media that relations between grandchildren and grandparents are damaged when adult children divorce, studies have shown that this is not necessarily the case. Cherlin and Furstenberg (1986) found that "custodial grandparents" (that is, those whose adult children were awarded custody of the grandchildren) tended to maintain very close ties with their grandchildren, while "noncustodial grandparents" were less likely to maintain such ties. Since custody of minor children continues to be awarded more frequently to mothers than fathers, this means that ties with maternal grandparents are more likely to be maintained or strengthened following a divorce, while ties with paternal grandparents are more vulnerable—particularly in terms of frequency of interaction.

Jeanne Hilton and Daniel Macari (1997) also found that geographic proximity and whether the grandparents were related to the custodial parent were important factors in structuring the grandparent–grandchild relationship. In a study of New York families, Hilton and Macari (1997) found that grandparents were more involved with their grandchildren when they lived nearby and were related to the custodial parent; they also found that grandmothers were more involved with grandchildren than were grandfathers. Further information on the effect of divorce on parent, adult–child, and grandchild relationships can be found in Johnson (1993).

Changing Dependencies. Social scientists have convincingly demonstrated that children and parents continue to depend on one another for both emotional and instrumental support throughout the life course (Spitze and Logan 1992). The literature on intergenerational relations, however, has focused more heavily on children's support to elderly parents than the reverse. Thus, before turning to a brief discussion of the issue of caregiving to the elderly, it is important to emphasize the reciprocal nature of intergenerational assistance.

Marvin Sussman (1985) has provided a model of parent–child relations across the life span that emphasizes the cyclical shift in relations with parents. In the beginning, parents provide a substantial amount of assistance to their offspring, even into the children's early married life. Then, as children become more independent—and possibly move away—there is a decrease in intergenerational helping. Finally, as elderly parents begin to decline in health, they come to depend more heavily on their children. This cyclical view of support is important, in that it stresses patterns of mutual aid between the generations (see also Rossi and Rossi 1990). Further, it should be noted that it is usually only very late in the life course that children's provision of support exceeds that of parents, and even then only when parents become frail and disabled (Spitze and Logan 1992).

Throughout the 1990s, several hundred articles were published examining the experiences of families at this stage of the life course. Research has documented the strains experienced by middle-aged children when parents become dependent, including practical problems of managing competing demands on their time and energy as well as emotional stress, increased social isolation, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy.

Besides establishing both the prevalence of support for aged parents and problems in providing care, researchers have attempted to determine who is most likely both to become a caregiver and to experience the greatest stress from caregiving. Two of the most consistent findings involve the issues of gender and the relationship to the elderly person. First, women are substantially more likely to become caregivers than are men, and the role of caretaking appears to result in more intensive "hands-on" activities for women than men (cf. Allen 1994; Arber and Ginn 1995; Coward and Dwyer 1990; Finley 1989; Lee et al. 1993). Second, when the elderly person is married, it is the spouse who almost always becomes the primary caregiver (Stoller 1992). Thus, adult children generally become caregivers only when the care recipient's spouse is not available to occupy this status. In addition, the nature of caregiving is different for spouses than for other caregivers. Spouses are more likely to have sole responsibility for caregiving and to have responsibility for providing assistance with routine activities of daily living (Stoller 1992). Further, spouses appear to experience greater physical and financial strain than do adult child caregivers and the are more likely to continue caregiving at the expense of their own well-being (Horowitz 1985). For a further discussion of caregiving, see Dwyer (1995).

Although research has focused on the detrimental consequences of caregiving, some more recent evidence suggests that most caregivers can also identify positive consequences of caregiving. These positive aspects usually involve feelings of gratification derived from helping someone they love and fulfilling expectations of filial responsibility. Thus, the issue of changing dependencies in later life reflects the twin themes of consensus and conflict evident throughout theory and research on intergenerational relations.


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Karl Pillemer
Shirley A. Keeton
J. Jill Suitor

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