Most animal species do not live beyond the time that they can reproduce. But human beings do. Why is this? The answer lies in evolution. It is called the grandparent advantage. Human beings can pass on their knowledge and experience from generation to generation, from elders to children. In this way we have built up culture, technology and institutions which have made human beings, as a species, dominant across the planet.
The way this has happened is through the generations living together interdependently in families. Multi-generation families have been dominant for thousands of years and still are in some cultures. But the “modern” model is the nuclear family – Mum, Dad and the kids, living apart from grandparents.
Ideally we want to have a healthy society, in which the generations work together for the benefit of all, think positively about one another and agree about what we are trying to achieve. It is called “intergenerational solidarity”. Care and support, both financially and otherwise, move both up and down the generations. In policy terms, the government uses taxes to pay for education, infrastructure, environmental protection and job promotion. Workers pay taxes to support pensions and health care costs for older people. This is a separate topic. Here I am looking at intergenerational relationships in the family sphere.
The vast majority of care for the old and the young, and for people who are ill or disabled, is done by families. This arises from and depends on intergenerational solidarity. Why do families care? As well as emotional attachments between family members it is also a question of reciprocity. When we care for our older people we are acknowledging that they provided for us as children. We are also showing our children what intergenerational responsibilities mean. One woman I talked to said it was good to expose her children to this type of caring, so that they understand the “duty of care moves on”. Even very old people with significant disabilities can “give back” to their families through emotional support. Being able to contribute love, advice and support means that the older people feel less passive and dependent.
But intergenerational solidarity is coming under strain – for a variety of reasons. With people living longer and fewer children being born we are seeing “bean-pole” families. These have four or more generations alive at one time, but fewer people in each generation. The family tree more easily fits the “portrait” rather than the “landscape” display. There are fewer people to share the caring responsibilities. At the same time, people are being encouraged to be in paid work as much as possible (even people who have dependent children) and to prolong their working lives. This is squeezing out the capacity for intergenerational family care.
Changing family structures – more cohabitation, fewer marriages, more divorces and subsequent remarriages – are also challenging solidarity between the generations. How do people feel about providing care for their ex-in laws; for their step-grandchildren? Divorce or the breakdown of relationships, has a negative and significant impact on intergenerational links, especially for men, who may have weaker ties with their adult children than women do. The timing of divorce may be important. If it happens when children are young and the father loses contact with them, then these ties are often gone forever. But if parents divorce when the children are adults and good relationships have been formed and maintained, then ties between fathers and their children can often go on.
Not all intergenerational relations are positive
Family are expected to care for their members, but this does not necessarily promote harmonious and close intergenerational relations. This often comes out in relation to eldercare. People may resent having to care for an older relative and the sacrifices that this entails. In the worse cases this can lead to abuse and neglect. The older people, in their turn, may feel guilty or angry and see themselves as a burden on the family. The result may be depression, sadness and a breakdown of families.
Many people deliberately avoid relying on family members for support and help, because of strained relations or because they want to be independent. Attempts to help may be seen as interference. Children may feel they are entitled to be part of, and sometimes direct, the decisions of their older parents. When older people are “put” into rest homes, what does this say about who has decided? Help from children may be a mixed blessing for older people.
How much negotiation goes on within families? How do we find a balance between older people wanting to be independent, but also to keep connected to their children? Their children’s concern may feel like overprotection and a threat to their independence.
A family in Auckland I spoke to insisted that their older members, who lived with them, did not go out during the day when everyone was at work. They were afraid that the older people would get lost or fall, especially when using a bus. But as a result they were condemning them to isolation and loneliness.
Intergenerational conflict comes from a lack of understanding and respect between age groups. As society changes, so do habits and lifestyles, language and communication. Child-rearing practices change, as do expectations of work and careers, how households should be run and how money should be spent. Older generations may look askance at their children and grandchildren’s patterns of life. Remember the condemnation of even mild “swearing”. Living on credit, social networking, permissive sexuality and many other aspects of modern life are challenging for older people and may be difficult to comprehend when they emerge in their own families. Conflict between adolescents and their parents is expected, but problems of communication and understanding may extend well into adulthood. The challenge is not to let tensions and disagreements permanently damage intergenerational relationships. In other words – it is not a fight, it is a family.