An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2015

The Future of Intergenerational Relations in Aging Societies

Frank F. Furstenberg, Caroline Sten Hartnett, Martin Kohli, and Julie M. Zissimopoulos
View PDF

As the pressure mounts to reduce the public costs of supporting rapidly aging societies, responsibility for supporting elderly people will increasingly fall on their family members. This essay explores the family's capacity to respond to these growing challenges. In particular, we examine how family change and growing inequality pose special problems in developed nations, especially the United States. This essay mentions a series of studies supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society that aim to examine the future of intergenerational exchange. We focus particularly on adults who have dependent and young-adult children and who must also care for elderly parents, a fraction of the population that will grow substantially in the coming twenty-five years.

FRANK F. FURSTENBERG, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1994, is the Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. He has authored or edited numerous books, including Destinies of the Disadvantaged: Teenage Childbearing and Public Policy (2007); Managing to Make It: Urban Families in High-Risk Neighborhoods (with Thomas D. Cook, Jacquelynne Eccles, and Glen H. Elder, Jr., 1999); and The New American Grandparent: A Place in the Family, a Life Apart (with Andrew J. Cherlin, 1986). His most recent book is Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness with a Ph.D. (2013).

CAROLINE STEN HARTNETT is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina. Her research has been published in such journals as Population Studies, Demographic Research, and Sociological Quarterly.

MARTIN KOHLI is Distinguished Bremen Professor at the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (Germany) and Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, at the European University Institute, Florence (Italy). His work has been published in such journals as European Sociological Review, Demographic Research, Research in Human Development, and Journal of European Social Policy, as well as in the recent editions of the Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences (ed. Robert H. Binstock and Lisa K. George).

JULIE M. ZISSIMOPOULOS is an Assistant Professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy and the Associate Director of the Schaeffer Center at the University of Southern California. Her research has recently appeared in such journals as The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Health Economics, Journal of Human Resources, and Demography.

Family systems are among the most enduring and universal institutions that human beings have devised; in one form or another, they exist in every society as a social arrangement for regulating reproduction, supporting the young, and caring for the elderly. The survival of family systems stems from their remarkable ability to transform their structure and practices in response to new demographic, social, and economic conditions. That the family system has persevered despite the vast global changes of the last century attests to this resiliency and adaptability. But there are a number of indications that the family’s capacity to perform its traditional functions is becoming strained as the pace of social and economic change quickens around the globe.

Family formation and childbearing, robust a half-century ago, have slowed to below population replacement levels in most developed nations. Marriage has become a less central and stable institution, making child care more precarious. The breakdown of the gender-based division of labor has challenged women and men to develop more complex routines for managing work and family roles. Greater parental investment and support is required for childrearing today: lengthier and increasingly expensive post-secondary education and depressed job prospects have prolonged young adults’ dependency on their parents. On the other hand, a rapid increase in longevity has enlarged the ranks of the elderly, contributing–along with the smaller number of the young– to an increase in their share of the total population. This adds to the elderly’s capacity to assist younger generations, though at the same time it increases the future burdens on younger generations to support and care for elderly family members when they become frail and incapacitated. . . .

Access the full volume here