Intergenerational linkages in the family: fascinating findings of Families and Societies

Families and Societies is a European project investigating changes in family formation and structures in the broader context of societal changes. AGE Platform has been part of it. After four years running, the project is now coming to an end.

Among the activities of Families and Societies, AGE has followed with special interest the research on “Intergenerational linkages in the family: the organisation of caring and financial responsibilities”.

A report recently published sums up the main findings:

  1. Intergenerational co-residence: conditions under which co-residence is a preferred or a defaults living arrangement

Co-residence has been seen as a means for intergenerational family solidarity. Support between adult children and parents who co-reside are more frequent than support between children and parents who do not live together. Co-residence is therefore a possible strategy to organise support, used relatively frequently in East and Southern Europe and less in the West.

Authors used the “geography of the family” thesis, which states that geographical proximity is more valued by parents than adult children; when they take into account their parents’ preferences, children constrain their choice regarding residence. Children with siblings tend to live farther away from their parents than only children, as their siblings can support parents, especially frail parents, and feel free from this responsibility.

This research also analysed the situation in Romania and Bulgaria. Findings showed that lower educational level of the children is associated to a higher likelihood of co-residence with parents. Surprisingly, unemployment does not increase the likelihood of co-residence.

  1. Transfers up and down family lines – the “sandwich generation”

“Sandwich generation” refers to those who are old enough to be likely to have children and grandchildren while their own parents are still alive. This reality, resulting from extended life expectancy, means that some older adults are in a position where they need to support both their grandchildren and their ageing parents.

This research has showed that the concept of “sandwich generation” is misleading: those aged 45-69 are not often in charge of caring simultaneously for grandchildren and ageing parents, but support either one or the other. Welfare regimes have an impact on how much care is delivered to ageing parents: in countries with a stronger familialistic tradition and weaker formal care provision the sandwich generation tends to deliver more to older people.

Researchers also focused on the wellbeing of caregivers. Findings show that those delivering care to dependent adults report less wellbeing that those who do not deliver care; caregiving has a negative impact in the form of worse physical and mental health and lower satisfaction with life. On the opposite, delivering care to grandchildren is found to have a positive impact on the wellbeing of carers.

Demographic ageing will put further pressure on caregivers; as stated in the summary report, “the sandwich generation in countries with poor public provision of care will be exposed to growing pressures, which decrease subjective well-being of the carer and other family members”.

  1. Norms of family obligation regarding care and financial support

Social norms of obligations towards ageing parents play an important role in shaping intergenerational linkages in the family. These norms dictate that children are supposed to support parents when they need it. These norms are, according to Dykstra and Fokkema (quoted in the report), “mental maps for decisions and behaviours". However, the strength and practical implications of such widespread norms vary across Europe. In countries where publicly founded care services are weaker, norms of filial obligation are stronger, which confirms the hypothesis of the so-called “familialism-by-default”; however, when taking into account all forms of support (emotional, instrumental, etc.), in countries with lower filial obligation adult children offer support in a higher proportion.

Another interesting piece of research examined residential and community-based care. Care in the community has been proposed as a possible solution to the pressure on care systems and the financial constraints, which goes hand in hand with the activation of the involvement of informal carers. Researchers analysed the relationship between the availability of residential care and the involvement of informal carers in the community. Their results show that the availability of residential care reduces adult children’s willingness to provide care to their parents; however, they continue to provide support in other forms (organising and supervising care, for instance). As interestingly stated in the report, “whether stimulating family caregiving through reduction of beds in residential care settings is desirable depends on one’s normative beliefs about how care ought to be provided”. The increasingly widespread societal belief that the state should step in to deliver care to older people might be at odds with such strategy.

In line with this, research also analysed the transformation of care ideals in the Netherlands, a country that has undergone important changes in its care system. More details on the findings were provided in a previous article in our website.

  1. Implications of policies for inequalities in and between families

The project also researched what are the implications of different policies and welfare models for inequalities in and between families - more specifically between young and old and between men and women.

The introduction of ‘daddy quotas’ for parental leave is one such a policy that has an impact on the sharing of responsibilities between women and men. Actually, the type of public provision “has consequences for gender and socio-economic inequality. Cash for care payments strengthen a gendered division of tasks more often than care services (e.g., home help, day care)”. The same applies to leaves: even if care policies are gender-neutral, “men are far less likely to make use of such leaves than are women, particularly if the leaves are unpaid”.

The way policies are written and the way they are implemented are often also influenced by beliefs around gender: a study in the Netherlands revealed that requests for public home care for frail older women with a partner where given more often than to older men with a partner – probably because older men were perceived as less capable of caring for their spouses. As highlighted in the report, “The gap between de jure and de facto practices represents a major challenge for social scientists with an interest in societal structuring” of the family roles of men and women.

  1. The impact of the economic crisis on intergenerational dependencies in families.

The long economic and social crisis and its impact on family relationships have been also under the scope of Families and Societies. In familialistic Southern Europe, families have been expected to play a prominent role as absorbers of the economic shocks, which have been especially harsh in these countries. Their positive role in ensuring social stability has been highlighted; however, the report states that “the strong emphasis in the role of the family has served to legitimize the provision of meagre social services, as well as to overtly justify political inaction in welfare policies”.

Researchers analysed the situation in Spain and the role of families as shock-absorbers. Evidence shows that financial transfers from older to younger generations is lower than usually assumed; however, co-residence with older adults has probably helped younger generations cope with the effects of the crisis.

All these findings and all other project findings can be retrieved for free in the website of Families and Societies,

This website is developed with the financial support of an operating grant of the Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme of the European Commission. The contents of the articles are the sole responsibility of AGE Platform Europe and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Commission.