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Intergenerational Relations

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.


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Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelatives & Extended FamilyIntergenerational Relations - Family Structure, Living Arrangements, Intergenerational Norms And Exchanges