Family Solidarity

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Given rising divorce rates, it comes as no surprise that people

are decreasingly happy with their marriages. . . . Given too, that

pleasure in family life is the most important contribution to

happiness and life satisfaction, here lies a major explanation of

America’s current and rising sorrow.

(Robert Lane 2000: 108)

The worst tyrants among human beings . . . are jealous husbands

. . ., resentful wives, [and] possessive parents . . . [in] a

scene of hatred.

(Peter Laslett 1971: 4)

In most Western countries children and the bonds between generations

are still an important source of support for older generations, but concern

for the continuity of this support is broadly felt. Over the past two

centuries drastic changes have occurred in the nature and extent of family

solidarity. Whereas in the absence of social security and institutions

of social welfare kin served as the most essential resource for economic

assistance and security, a gradual weakening of interdependence among

kin has occurred over time. In the past commitment to the survival and

economic well-being of the family took priority over individual needs.

Also anthropological studies suggest that “kinship dues” were traditionally

the main source of kinship support (Sahlins 1972). The instrumental

orientation toward family has gradually been replaced by a more individualistic

and affective orientation and a greater emphasis on individual

needs and personal happiness (Hareven 1995). This development has

raised a concern with the vitality of family bonds and intergenerational

solidarity. Demographic changes have significantly added to this concern

(Bengtson 2001).Never before have elderly people lived so long, and never

before has the younger generation been so small in number compared

with the older generations. Also the larger variation in family structure is

supposed to cause a decline in traditional family patterns and values. International

studies about cultural and other values show that the increase

of individualization is accompanied by a lower level of identification and

loyalty with the family (Inglehart 1977; Popenoe 1988).

In addition to demographic developments changes in the life course

may have an impact on family solidarity. Recent research conducted in

the Netherlands shows that the phase of childhood and adolescence has

become longer in that societal responsibility is postponed (Liefbroer and

Dykstra 2000). In adulthood the period in which one participates in paid

labor has become shorter. In the Netherlands the percentage of working

people aged between fifty-five and sixty-four has decreased from 35% in

1975 to 28.7%in1998 (Sociale en culturele verkenningen 1999). The phase of

old age has become prolonged because of the increased longevity. On the

one hand, an increasing number of old people will be in need of care and

support at a time when the availability of women in particular to provide

these has diminished. On the other hand, an increasing number of still

vigorous old people will be available to provide support to the younger

generation. Both of these developments may affect family solidarity.

Family solidarity is also influenced by the wider social context of the

welfare state and its level of social security and caring arrangements.

Since their introductionWestern welfare regimes incorporate an implicit

social contract between generations that is based on intergenerational as

well as intragenerational transfers of resources through the mediums of

taxation and social expenditure (Bengtson and Achenbaum 1993;Walker

1996; WRR 1999). Public pension provision and the provision of social

and health care are the core of this social contract. A similar but informal

social contract specifying caring obligations and relationships exists

within the family. In both the welfare-state social contract and the implied

contract of generations within the family the idea of reciprocity is

quintessential. The welfare state has institutionalized the expectation of

reciprocity in its system of inter- and intragenerational transfers. Similarly,

Bengtson, Rosenthal, and Burton (1990) argue that the contract of

generations existingwithin the family “calls for the parents to invest a major

portion of their resources throughout their adult years in the rearing

of children; in old age, the care giving is expected to be reversed.”Walker

(1996) points to the many ways this microsocial contract between family

members interactswith the macrosocial one. The economic restructuring

of Western welfare states occurring since the 1970s may have profound

implications for generational relations within families, particularly when

coupled with the increase in life expectancy.ManyWestern welfare states

have faced cuts in social expenditure, thereby putting a higher burden

on families to provide informal care. Inversely, the gender-based caring

relationship within families is in transition, which may be consequential

for welfare-state social policy. The reduction of women’s availability as

caregivers is a new reality that has to be taken into account in social policy.

This chapter dealswith family solidarity, conceived as solidaritywithin

the network of family and near relatives, the informal solidarity contract

existing between family members.Precisely because the family is regarded

as the breeding ground for Durkheim’s mechanical solidarity, it is interesting

to examine whether there are concrete indications that family solidarity

is declining. First, the theme is positioned within the context of the

scientific and societal debate about generations and their interrelationships.

Then some theoretical dimensions of intergenerational solidarity

are discussed, followed by an overview of empirical research results on

concrete intergenerational solidarity in the formof (beliefs about) caring

for the elderly by the younger generation. In the final section, a distinction

is made between two dimensions of intergenerational relations, the first

at the macrolevel of welfare state provisions related to family care, and

the second at the microlevel of informal care within the family itself. An

interesting question is how both levels interact with one another.

The Relationship between Generations

Relationships between generations have traditionally been a source of

great solidarity as well as fierce conflicts. Throughout history members

of the younger generation have detested the older generation because

of their old-fashioned ideas and beliefs, their rigid attitudes, and their

inability to keep pace with the times. The aged, in turn, were faced with a

growing emotional distance from the younger generation. Mutual prejudice

has always flourished. Contemporary youths do not like reading

books anymore, are only interested in watching television or playing

computer games, do not feel like making any effort whatsoever, and are

materialistic and egocentric. And, in reverse, aged people have had the

better opportunities, impede the mobility of the young on the labor market

by keeping the better jobs, and reach such elevated ages that they

(will) cause an enormous rise of costs in the health care system. These

commonsense notions certainly do not offer a satisfying answer to the

question whether a serious “generation problem” exists today, as Karl

Mannheim termed it in 1928 and, if it does, what its manifestations are.

An important preliminary question is what is exactly considered a

generation. Does this concept merely indicate a macrosociological, demographic

category based on the year of one’s birth? Or is a generation

a historical concept, referring to a certain group of people of about the

same age, who define themselves as being the founders of new values or

the promoters of cultural, political, and social changes, like the Vietnam

generation or the baby boomers (Bengtson 1993)? Different views on this

matter exist in the scientific literature. Becker (1992), for instance, conceives

of a generation as an age cohort occupying a particular position

in history and showing similarities at the individual level (life course,

values, behavior) as well as the structural level (magnitude, composition,

culture, and organization of the generation). When a cohort substitutes

for a former one, this substitution process is assumed to be accompanied

by a change in values, culture, and life opportunities (Inglehart 1977).

The cohort conception of generations has not only been criticized for being

static but has an additional disadvantage, which has been termed the

“fallacy of cohort-centrism” (White Riley 1992, quoted in Bengtson and

Achenbaum 1993): the tendency to assume that all members of one cohort

will age in the same way. This assumption precludes the recognition of

big differences that may exist within the same cohort, as a consequence

not only of differing individual reactions to the aging process but also of

the structural influences of, for instance, social class, gender, or ethnicity.

Atotally different generation concept has been developedby the founding

father of the generation theory, Karl Mannheim (1950 [1928]), who

does not so much conceive of agener ation as abir th cohort but rather as

ag roup of contemporaries who share the feeling of belonging to ac ertain

generation. This feeling arises as a consequence of shared experiences of

particular social and historical events that have been formative for the

course of their lives. A birth cohort, therefore, does not necessarily coincide

with a generation: rather than age determining a generation, it is the

shared conscience.Abirth cohortmay be at the roots of a generation, but a

generation inMannheim’s sense is primarily characterized by a common

mutual identification, based on a shared fate that differs fundamentally

from that of other generations. This is amuch more social-psychological

and dynamic view of generations than the statistical and static cohort


For this chapter a mixture of both generation concepts is relevant.

Not only age cohorts but also the experience of belonging to a certain

generation is important for our theme. One may have grandchildren but

at the same time feel “in the midst of life” and be active, for instance,

by having a job. A woman may be a grandparent but also be sportive,

socially active, and have a circle of friends. Although she belongs to the

cohort of the third generation, she feels and behaves as if she were young

and is, in that sense, comparable with the members of younger generations.

The structure of generations has fundamentally changed during

the second half of the twentieth century.More generations have become

involved in families.Whereas in former times a family was composed of

at most two or three generations due to the shorter life expectancy, nowadays

it is not exceptional that four generations are in good health and

are contributing somehow to family life. We do not know exactly what

the implications of these changes for family solidarity are, but the situation

has certainly become different from the one that prevailed during

the largest part of the twentieth century when the nuclear family was the

main family unit. Everything revolved around father, mother, and the

children and, whether you liked it or not, you were dependent on them

for your physical and social survival. Even though the nuclear family is

still an important anchor and social unit for many people, its importance

seems to be diminishing in favor of multigenerational bonds (Bengtson


Traditionally, the exchange of money, goods, and services has been

an important aspect of familial solidarity, in particular as expressed in

solidarity between generations. For centuries families have played an important

economic role in the lives of individual citizens. Until the era of

industrialization the family was the most important unit of production;

individual survival dependedoneconomic cooperationwithin the family.

Today economic exchange between family members is no longer a vital

precondition for individual survival. Nevertheless, people’s well-being

still depends largely on the exchange of goods and services with other

persons. A substantial part of that exchange continues to occur within

the family, among and between generations. In the past two decades, the

family is believed to have lost its significance as “a haven in a heartless

world” (Lasch 1977). As ac onsequence of ava riety of factors, including

women’s increased participation in the labor market, their greater

economic independence, the liberalization of norms and values, and the

increased divorce rate, the family may have lost its former cohesion and

original significance. Is there any empirical support for these beliefs?

Family Solidarity:Empir ical Research

Dimensions of Family Solidarity

The classical sociologists have left their traces in the literature on intergenerational

solidarity. TЁonnies’s distinction between Gemeinschaft and

Gesellschaft (1987) and Durkheim’s theory about mechanical and organic

solidarity (1964a [1893]) are based on two elements that have influenced

theoretical ideas about intergenerational solidarity: on the one hand, the

internalized normative obligations toward the group (mechanical solidarity,

Gemeinschaft) and, on the other, the functional interdependency

of and consensus among group members about the rules of exchange

(organic solidarity, Gesellschaft ; Roberts, Richards, and Bengtson 1991).

The first conceptualizations of family solidarity originated in social

psychology. In the 1950s social psychologists started to research group dynamics

in the laboratory, especially the characteristics of internal group

cohesion. The contribution of Homans (1950), for instance, focused on

those elements of human interaction presumed to be determinants of

group solidarity. He distinguished between “interaction” or the degree

of mutual connectedness of the actions of group members (Durkheim’s

functional dependency), “extendedness” of group activities, degree of

mutual affection, and norms concerning group membership and activities.

The greater the interaction,mutual affection, and shared norms and

commitment to the group, the more cohesion the groupwould show.Another

social psychologist,Heider (1958), added the degree of resemblance

among group members to the factors listed by Homans. In addition to

having frequent contact, also shared interests and norms contribute to

group cohesion.

These contributions are reflected in the work of the contemporary

American family sociologist Bengtson. In a recent article (2001) he

summarizes the solidarity model developed by him and his colleagues

(Bengtson and Mangen 1988; Bengtson and Roberts 1991; Roberts

et al. 1991). The model consists of six dimensions of intergenerational

solidarity: affectual solidarity (how people feel about their relationships),

associational solidarity (type and frequency of contact), consensual

solidarity (agreement in opinions and values), functional solidarity

(assistance), normative solidarity (expectations regarding family obligations,

familistic values), and structural solidarity (opportunity structure

for interaction, geographical proximity). Using longitudinal data,

Bengtson and his colleagues have been able to chart the course of intergenerational

solidarity over time. Between 1971 and 1997 they found

remarkably stable patterns of affectual solidarity in theUnited States: high

levels of emotional bonding across generations have remained intact over

the years, according to Bengtson.

Bengtson’s typology of solidarity dimensions has given rise to extensive

empirical research. One of the questions posed by researchers concerns

the relationship between the dimensions of solidarity. Despite the

original hopes of detecting one underlying construct of solidarity, only

associational, functional, and structural solidarity showsubstantial intercorrelation,

and these dimensions, in turn, prove unrelated to affectional

solidarity. In the absence of a theoretical model specifying the causal relationships

between the concept of family solidarity and its indicators, each

dimension has been studied separately. In their overview of empirical research

Roberts et al. (1991) mention, among others, the following results.

Normative intergenerational solidarity has been found to be stronger

when parental income is lower. Affectional solidarity is related to age and

gender and is stronger among members of older generations and women

(mothers and daughters). Associational solidarity has also been found

to be higher among women, probably reflecting their “kinkeeping” role.

Among divorced parents, as well as among people living in an urban

setting and those with higher education, associational solidarity seems

to be lower. Probably because functional solidarity or the exchange of

help and care is relatively easy to study empirically, studies assessing the

conditions under which assistance flows both up and down generational

lines in the family are abundant (Cheal 1983;Mangen et al. 1988; Roberts

et al. 1991). Functional solidarity appears to be positively correlated with

higher income and education and with marital status.

There are several problems connected to Bengtson’s typology. For instance,

some of the dimensions, in particular associational and functional

solidarity, seem to be partly overlapping; helping a family member necessarily

means having contact and seeing him or her. Second, no attempt is

made to develop a theoretical model inwhich the causal relationships between

the dimensions and the putative construct of family solidarity are

specified. In Bengtson’s view family solidarity seems to be the sum of the

dimensions, which implies a certain level of internal consistency between

them. Empirical research has not confirmed this, though.Moreover, the

nature of the causal relationships between the dimensions themselves

is not clear. Geographical proximity (structural solidarity) is clearly a

constraining (or enabling) factor where associational and functional solidarity

are concerned and, in that sense, is at a different causal level. A

third problem is that none of the dimensions has been studied in any

depth, so that no progress is made to arrive at a better theoretical understanding

of the complex and multifaceted concept of family solidarity.

A study done by the American sociologists Alice and Peter Rossi (1990),

however, has attempted to investigate these aspects of family solidarity in

greater detail.