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Intergenerational Exchanges

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.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 2Intergenerational Exchanges - Consequences Of Social And Demographic Changes For Exchanges Between Generations, Why Do Individuals Give?, Factors That Affect Exchanges