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Intergenerational Exchanges

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.

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