Intergenerational relationships refer to ties between individuals or groups of different ages. Sweeping changes in American family structure, especially since World War II, have dramatically altered ties between generations for older and younger generations alike. Many intergenerational ties now last longer than at any time in the past. As social networks contract due to loss of spouse through widowhood or, increasingly, divorce, intergenerational relationships are more likely to be the first place that older adults turn for help.
Bengston’s theory of intergenerational solidarity points to the multifaceted ways in which generations relate to one another in terms of living arrangements (structural), shared values (normative), norms (consensual), contact (associational) and 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 generations. More recent explanations using the contingent exchange perspective have focused on differences in needs and resources of each generation. In other words, more assistance will be given to the child or the parent with the greatest need. Likewise, available resources may constrain the limits of what is given, and individuals with the greatest resources may be more likely to provide assistance. There is also mounting evidence that patterns of intergenerational exchanges can have important psychological consequences for both parents and children. The circumstances under which this is the case are only beginning to be identified.
Early work on the predictors of intergenerational support have focused on variables such as frequency of contact between parents and offspring, but most current approaches consider the content of, and satisfaction with, exchanges, including instrumental assistance, such as with household tasks or transportation, financial assistance, emotional support and advice, and sharing information. Despite growing consensus on what to measure, how it is measured often complicates comparisons of findings from studies using different methods for measuring exchange.
Human development scholars have long regarded individuals as being embedded within a latent matrix of support. Unfortunately, most previous research on the characteristics of this matrix has been largely ahistorical and ignored the family as a system of interrelated relationships. We suggest that a shift from considering families in context to one of studying families as contexts will provide ample theoretical purchase on the antecedents of intergenerational support, and point the way to innovations of measurement, design, and analysis of ties between generations, by considering sources of variability within and between families simultaneously. This can be achieved by capturing the characteristics of multiple relationships at the family, individual (parent and child characteristics), and dyadic level. At the family level, researchers could consider characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and family size. At the individual level, one could measure parent characteristics such as age, gender, marital history, health and functioning, income, education, and labor force participation. Similarly, characteristics of the adult children such as age, gender, marital history, the child’s own parental status, biological versus step relationships, and income could be included. While parent characteristics are common among all children, child characteristics may vary across relationships in the same family. A number of indicators of the dyadic relationship between the parent and the adult child could therefore be included. These include residential propinquity and contact, coresidence, relationship quality, and past support between parents and offspring. These variables can be considered as most proximal to exchange and because they are unique to each relationship, they can be expected to account for intrafamilial variability in exchange patterns.
This is an exciting juncture in the study of intergenerational relationships, with plenty of new and emerging family structures, methodological advances, and opportunities for key theoretical advances. It also represents some of the most salient and enduring family relationships individuals will ever experience.
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