Intergenerational Relations Research Paper

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The concept of intergenerational relations has different meanings that are not always sufficiently distinguished. One of its aspects is the relations between age groups demarcated by demographic criteria. To the extent that these relationships are regulated by the institutions of the welfare state, one speaks of a ‘generational contract.’ The concept of intergenerational relations also encompasses the personal relations between the members of different generations. As a major focus of theory building and empirical research, this latter aspect—intergenerational relations within the family—is the subject of this research paper, which also touches on intergenerational relations with friends and acquaintances. Because the modern (or now perhaps postmodern) family is usually compared with the traditional family, a brief historical review is included as well.

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1. Historical Patterns Of Intergenerational Relations

Historical research shows that the rise of the bourgeois family in the late eighteenth century implied a change in family relations. This change is described in terms of growth in emotional closeness, intimacy, or affective individualization (Stone 1990). Although the finding of increasing affective attachment between parents and young children has become accepted as a matter of course, historical research has been less successful at changing popular beliefs about intergenerational relations between adult children and their parents in traditional society.

Many people, including a number of sociologists and especially politicians, cling to the ‘misbelief’ (Laslett 1991, p. 111) that adult children in premodern times lived with their parents under the same roof. Actually, types of families in preindustrial European society were quite diverse. The stem family, in which the members of the younger generation continued to live with their parents, was quite common in south and southeast Europe. Another type of family was the zadruga, an arrangement whereby the families of brothers lived together. By contrast, the nuclear family was (and still is) the main type in north and northwest Europe (Burguiere and Lebrun 1997). In that part of Europe, the adult children did not provide housing, financial support, and care for their old parents, though the opposite claim has often been made. The relatively few persons who did survive into old age had to work as long as they could. If they were poor, frail, or sick, they received a very low level of support from the local community. People who owned property or land/or who had a business decided themselves when one of their children should succeed them. Monthly contributions were regulated by contract, with the heir having to provide the parents with either money or natural products.

The nature of intergenerational relations changed at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. The new emotional quality of the early parent–child relationship became encoded in new norms that defined the conduct of a good mother. Similarly, normative ideas began to spread about obligations that adult children had toward their parents. Until the seventeenth century, there seems to have been no legal provisions that committed children to support their old parents (Grimm 1899). However, Prussian common law (Allgemeines Preussisches Landrecht) of 1794, the most advanced codification of its time, ruled that children had to care for their parents in case of need (Paragraph 63). It was only after life spans (longevity) increased and after the industrial economy put old people out of work that the number of three-generation households increased (Ehmer 1982).

2. Intergenerational Relations At The Turn Of The Second Millennium: Parents And Their Adult Children

Contrary to the assumptions in sociological theories of modernization, premodern norms of solidarity do not seem to have been eroded by the dynamics of modernization. The norm that adult children owe their parents support and affection has been spread by modern middle-class society. Simultaneously, however, the idea has emerged that children have a right to make decisions about their own lives. Parent–child relationships have thus come to be characterized by two sometimes incompatible dimensions: attachment and the pursuit of independence.

Additional changes in intergenerational relationships have been due to demographic factors in the twentieth century. Secular decline in the birth rate, which has been particularly apparent since the 1960s, has reduced the number of siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces (a family’s ‘horizontal’ dimension) but has increased the number of generations within the family (the ‘vertical’ dimension of a family). In the 1990s, for example, 81 percent of all children ranging from 10 through 14 years of age in Germany had a living grandfather or grandmother (Federal Ministry 1998).

Research on intergenerational relations in late phases of the family cycle began in the 1960s, when it became apparent that the rising number of old and frequently frail people was going to confront society with a problem. In response to the structural ‘isolation of the conjugal unit’ (Parsons 1943, p. 27), researchers have sought evidence that relationships between old parents and their adult children are characterized by solidarity (Litwak 1965). Rosenmayr and Kockeis (1965) summarized their research results with the words ‘intimacy at a distance’ ( p. 204), a formulation that became known worldwide and that still seems to hold for the relations between old parents and their adult children, at least in Western industrialized countries. Numerous studies have meanwhile shown that parents and children provide each other instrumental, emotional, and financial support (AttiasDonfut 1995, Schutze and Lang 1996, Silverstein and Bengtson 1997). Because intergenerational financial transfer flows from the older to the younger generation, it seems plausible that some of the public transfers to the elderly are channeled back to the young through the family (Attias-Donfut 1995, Kohli 1999).

Although researchers have particularly addressed questions about the stress and feelings of gratification experienced by middle-aged children who become caregivers for their parents, care is primarily given by spouses. Often, adult children become the caregivers only if one of the parental spouses is not available. Daughters are more likely than sons to assume this responsibility, and the daughters experience much greater stress, social isolation, and disruption in their daily lives than sons do (Horowitz 1985). The number of studies on conflict and consensus in parent–child relationships, particularly on caregiving relationships, is probably due to political concerns about whether

 the family will continue to perform this function or whether it will fall to state institutions. The focus on sociopolitical issues has led to a relative neglect of theoretical questions, such as the transformation of the parent–child relationship during the late phases of the family cycle.

3. Theoretical Perspectives On Intergenerational Relations

Erikson (1959) occasionally referred to the developmental task of overcoming dependency stemming from the period of childhood. In a similar vein Blenkner (1965) developed the construct of filial maturity, arguing that a transformation occurs in the late phases of the family cycle irrespective of the quality of the early parent–child relationship. When the children cannot help but realize that their old parents are becoming frail, they experience a filial crisis because they recognize that the parents are having to rely completely on themselves. In the subsequent phase of filial maturity, the children acquire a new perspective, conceiving of their parents as individuals with their own rights, needs, and limitations. With this new perspective, there emerges a sense of responsibility that did not exist before. The concept of filial maturity may well be a way in which to integrate autonomy and attachment, moral obligation and affection, distance and closeness.

Taking Blenkner’s concept of filial maturity as a model, Nydegger (1991) developed the concept of parental maturity. Parental maturity means that parents cease interference in their children’s lives. Mature parents successfully cope with the fact that some hopes they had had for their children have not been met. They recognize whatever differences there may be between their values and those of their children. Mature parents also have learned to accept help and do not claim a degree of independence that is no longer realistic. Unfortunately, neither the concept of filial maturity nor that of parental maturity has been empirically researched (for an exception, see Marcoen 1995).

Another theoretical framework for the analysis of late parent–child relationships can be derived from the view of generations offered by Mannheim ([1928] 1952). Mannheim held that the members of different generations (cohorts) are located at different places in the historical process and that they therefore differ in the way they experience and cope with historical events. Mannheim applied this concept to classifications of age groups in the population, though not to family lineage. It seems legitimate, however, to ask how location in the historical process affects relations and mutual perceptions in the family. In a cross-cultural comparison, for instance, Attias-Donfut (1998) found much less convergence between value orientations and much greater emotional distance between old and younger generations (age groups) in Germany than in France. The author suggested that this generation gap in Germany may be a consequence of the Nazi period. The findings are consistent with those from the literature on family therapy, in which it is shown that Germany’s Nazi past weighs heavily on relationships within the family as well (Stierlin 1981, Rosenthal 1997).

4. Intergenerational Relations Beyond The Family

In both sociological theory and popular understanding, it is assumed that people choose friends on the basis of similarity, for friends mostly have similar social status, converge in their lifestyles, and belong to the same sex and age group (Merton and Lazarsfeld 1954, Rosow 1967; for more recent literature see Filipp and Mayer 1999). Homogeneity of age, how- ever, is viewed positively in relations between children or adolescents but negatively (as an indicator of discrimination) in relations that old people have. In reality, it is questionable whether the low number of friendships between older and younger people is evidence of discrimination. After all, friendship is usually between members of the same age group.

All in all, it is primarily through the family that the members of two, three, or even four generations maintain personal relations. Within these relations cultural traditions and family-specific experiences and narratives are passed on. At the same time, however, new forms of dealing with each other are created as well. There is no evidence to support suspicions of cultural pessimists that this balance between continuity and change is going to collapse.


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