Macro- andMicrosolidarity

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Most welfare states are based on a silent contract between generations,

with the younger generation contributing financially to the care needed

by the elderly (Walker 1996). Through the payment of taxes and premiums

and by means of social policy, the government provides for the

material and physical support required by aged people when they are not

able anymore to earn their own living or to care for themselves properly.

Western and Northern European countries have a relatively generous

system of pensions and additional forms of (partly) subsidized governmental

support for the elderly compared with the United States – home

care, district nursing, adaptations to the homes of the disabled, meals

delivered at home, to mention a few examples. In view of this situation

it is not surprising that many aged people living in Western and Northern

Europe prefer the institutional, state-provided care over an enduring

dependency on their own children (de Jong-Gierveld and van Solinge


The micro- and macrosocial dimensions of intergenerational relations

are not completely separate phenomena; in fact, they are interdependent

in several ways. First, characteristics of welfare-state social policy

for aged people – in particular, the liberality and accessibility of caring

arrangements – have an impact on care provision within families. For

instance, cuts in governmental elderly care may cause a stronger appeal

to informal caregivers, implying a higher workload for them. Similarly,

changes in the level of the pensions may have an impact on the financial

and physical dependency of aged people upon their family members.

These developments are often unintended side effects of governmental

policy. A second influence of the state upon microsocial, intrafamilial

caring arrangements is the social construction and embodiment of traditional

family ideals in which women are still playing an important role

as informal caregivers. In manyWestern countries governments are hesitant

to intervene in too direct a way into the caring potential of families

because they fear that an overly generous governmental supply of care

will eliminate spontaneous care provided within families (Walker 1996).

A paradoxical effect becomes visible here: whereas the traditional family

ideal is declining rapidly, the principle of governmental nonintervention

acts as a reinforcement of traditional family relationships.

But the influence also goes the other way around: microsocial arrangements

are reflected in macrosocial policy, or in the use that is made

of macrosocial arrangements (Esping-Andersen 1999). The nature and

quality of the relationship between parents and their adult children may

have an impact on the willingness of the children to provide care to their

parents and, therefore, on the extent of the appeal that is done to formal

caring arrangements. Also the extent to which adult children and

their parents have access to formal, state-based arrangements and facilities

will influence the balance between formal and informal care within

a particular family. Financial resources as well as knowledge of formal

opportunities to obtain the necessary care and support are some obvious

determinants of the actual use that is made of public benefits.

What, then, is the nature of the relationship between the macro- and

the microsocial contract between generations? The idea that a decrease of

caring provisions by the welfare state will lead to an increase of informal

care has been propagated by politicians at a time when European welfare

states are being economically restructured: family care as a substitute for

state-based care. The substitution thesis may also work the other way

around and is often expressed as a fear: the more the state cares for its

citizens, the fewer citizens will care for each other. An alternative way

to understand the relationship between the macro- and the microsocial

dimensions of intergenerational relations is the complementarity thesis,

which holds that higher levels of formal care go together with higher

levels of informal care.

Empirical research done so far offers a varied picture: in some welfare

states the substitution thesis is confirmed, whereas in others the complementarity

thesis seems to hold (Knijn and Komter 2003). A straightforward

answer to the question of which thesis is the most valid in general

is not to be expected. The reason is that the nature of the relationship

between the macro- and microsocial contract seems to depend on the

liberality of the particular welfare state and of the specific domain that is

studied (childcare, informal care, intergenerational transfers, etc.).

In the Netherlands several empirical studies corroborate the complementarity

thesis (Komter et al. 2000). For instance, the findings of

the previously mentioned study by Dykstraa nd de Jong-Gierveld (1997)

demonstrate that the most frequent users of informal resources are also

using formal resources to the largest extent. The main focus of the recent

book by Arber and Attias-Donfut (2000) is the exchange of material and

nonmaterial support between adult generations within a framework of

the interaction between the public and private domains. They report a

German study by KЁunemund and Rein (1999) who used datafrom ala rge

comparative survey of older people in fourWestern countries and Japan.

The study shows that “the most important forms of solidarity with regard

to older people take place in those countries where social policies

are generous to the welfare of older people” (Arber and Attias-Donfut

2000: 13). These findings confirm the notion that public aid reinforces

private aid rather than substituting for it. Other research results reported

by Attias-Donfut and Arber also showthat the rise in public caring provisions

during the past decades has not resulted in any reduction of informal

carewithin families. Fromtheir own study on three-generational families

in France, based on a representative sample ofmultigenerational families,

the same picture arises. The authors conclude: “The complementarity of

public and private forms of support has been shown for different categories

of transfers. Whether these transfers are for financial help for

young adults or care given to the eldest-generation members, the results

are the same. In all cases, public benefits increase the recipient’s chances

of an additional and complementary form of support from members of

their family lineage” (Arber and Attias-Donfut 2000: 65). In short, public

transfers reshape and sustain family solidarity (Kohli 1999).

Family Solidarity:Solid but Ambivalent

Beliefs about extrafamilial, state-based intergenerational solidarity generally

showa high level of solidarity. In theNetherlands aswell as in many

other European countries, there is a high consensus about the desirability

of working people’s financial contribution, through taxes or otherwise,

to a decent standard of living for aged people. The Dutch grant a very

important role to the government when it comes to provisions for elderly

people requiring care or help. The majority of the Dutch think that the

government is primarily responsible for elderly care and that children’s

role is only secondary. In daily reality, however, children still provide informal

care to older family members to a substantial extent. The Dutch

level of informal care provided by adult children, particularly women,

to older generations is no exception to the levels found in other European

countries. Despite fears to the contrary, the state of actual family

solidarity in theWestern world is still very solid.

Although family care is still provided on a large scale, the motives

underlying the care offered to aged (in-law) parents are based on inner

obligation – a kind of “prescribed altruism” – rather than on feelings of

affectivity and identification. Recipients may experience the care offered

to them as problematic. For instance, the parents’ psychological wellbeing

may not be served best when their own children are the caregivers.

The care and help may be felt as a form of control, and the diminished

reciprocity when the recipient is older may cause feelings of dependency.

Inversely, caregivers frequently experience the care as a heavy burden in

terms of the time and the resources they spend on it.

Whereas the concept of family solidarity seems to direct our attention

automatically to positive feelings of connectedness and altruistic acts of

helping, we should bear in mind that the nature of family ties is fundamentally

different from that of other social ties in that they are given,

not chosen. Family solidarity cannot be isolated from the more negative

aspects of care provided to family and from the deeply ambivalent nature

of family ties in general. On the one hand, the bonds between family

members are still solid in terms of the amounts of care and help that

continue to be exchanged; on the other hand, family ties may be troubled

or conflictive and be experienced as a burden.