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Intergenerational Caregiving | Preface


Intergenerational Caregiving Cover Large

Intergenerational Caregiving | Preface

Dramatic changes in American families over the past half century have transformed the nature of intergenerational relationships. Nuclear families have become smaller as fertility has declined, but extended families have become larger with gains in life expectancy leading to more generations within families. Divorce and nonmarital childbearing, remarriage, and cohabitation, all more common now than a half century ago, add further complexity to intergenerational relationships. They weaken ties to biological fathers while at the same time reinforcing some grandparent–grandchild ties. Step-children and step-grandchildren increase the number of family members on whom an elderly person can potentially rely for help, but the strength of these familial ties may be insufficient to generate the desired care. These changing family ties also increase the importance of understanding how adult siblings, including step-siblings, negotiate intergenerational caregiving roles. Finally, women’s greater employment also alters the “caregiving reserve” that families have and drives up the costs to women who forgo employment to care for family members. In dual-earner families, the demands of two jobs create their own tensions, with men and women often having to negotiate, and renegotiate, how to divide housework, paid work, and dependent care.  In this book, scholars from different disciplines consider factors that account for variation and changes in relationships within and among generations, the strengths and weaknesses of current information that can be used to understand change in inter- and intragenerational relationships, as well as implications for social policies.

The contributions to this book are based on papers presented at the 14th Annual Penn State Symposium on Family Issues, “Caring and Exchange within and across Generations.” The two-day interdisciplinary symposium is held in October on the University Park campus of Penn State. This edited volume is the culmination of those two days of stimulating and provocative presentations and discussions.

Intergenerational Caregiving is organized into four sections, each of which addresses a distinct goal. Each section includes a chapter by lead authors, followed by shorter chapters by discussants. Care has been taken to bring together perspectives from diverse disciplines. The book concludes with an integrative commentary.

In the first section, an interdisciplinary team of economists and sociologists sets the stage by laying out contemporary trends and contexts of care and exchange across generations. The team is composed of Kathleen McGarry, Suzanne Bianchi, V. Joseph Hotz, and Judith A. Seltzer, all of whom are members of a group funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) that has been charged with developing new models for explaining family change and variation. Discussants’ chapters weave in additional insights, including international perspectives. Rebecca Wong, a demographer, includes examples from Mexico in her chapter. Francesco Billari and Aart Liefbroer, demographers from Italy and the Netherlands respectively, draw on international data to make the point that caregiving varies considerably across nations. Melissa Hardy, a sociologist with expertise on adulthood and aging, emphasizes the kind of data and research designs needed for this field of study to move forward. 

Economist Donald Cox leads off the second section with a chapter on the theoretical models that various disciplines have used to explain patterns of caregiving and exchange within and across generations, including ideas drawn from economics, sociology, and bioevolutionary theory. The three discussants—Merril Silverstein, a gerontological sociologist; Jeremy Freese, a sociologist; and Steven Zarit, a scholar whose training fuses life-span human development with clinical psychology insights about aging and family caregiving, provide thoughtful reactions. At times, the discussants question how feasible it is to test hypotheses drawn from evolutionary theory.

In the third section, authors take a look inside families. Older adults who need care often have several children to whom they could possibly turn, and those adult children may have spouses and children who, in turn, are additional sources of possible help. The lead chapter by sociologists Karl Pillemer and Jill Suitor examines unusual data on aging families and multiple siblings. The discussants bring a rich set of expertise from different disciplines and periods of the life course. The first discussant chapter, coauthored by Marcia Seltzer and Jan S. Greenberg, both professors of social work; Julie L. Lounds and Gail I. Orsmond, both developmental psychologists; and Matthew J. Smith, a social work researcher, adds insights from research on families raising children with disabilities. Susan M. McHale and Ann C. Crouter, scholars in human development and family studies, describe patterns of sibling relations and parental differential treatment of siblings in middle childhood and adolescence that may underlie subsequent patterns of care later in life. The final chapter in this section, by Robert Pollak, Barbara Schone, and Liliana E. Pezzin, brings an economic perspective.

The book culminates in an intriguing comparison of different family caregivers, addressing the question, “Who feels an obligation for whom?” Sociologists Steven Nock, Paul Kingston, and Laura M. Holian summarize survey data collected with an experimental design. Respondents were asked to rate how much responsibility a variety of hypothetical family caregivers should take in different situations, varying the situation in terms of “degrees of removal” as defined by biological ties, step-ties, and in-law ties. Psychologists James Jackson, Toni C. Antonucci, Edna E. Brown, and Svein Olav Daatland; Adam Davey, whose work focuses on the psychology of aging; and economist Robert Willis offer complementary perspectives.

The final chapter is an integrative commentary by Cassandra Dorius and Laura Wray-Lake, graduate students at Penn State in Sociology and Human Development and Family Studies, respectively. This interdisciplinary team deftly summarizes the themes woven throughout the volume and suggests next steps for research.



Intergenerational Caregiving, edited by Alan Booth, Ann C. Crouter, Suzanne M. Bianchi, and Judith A. Seltzer, is available from the Urban Institute Press (ISBN 978-0-87766-747-6, paper, 420 pages, $29.50).

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