Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The giving season ... and era

By Claude Fischer


Every time I cash in on being (just barely) a senior citizen – at the movie line, on the subway, for example – I feel a twinge of guilt. The elderly, on average, can better afford such items than can young adults, especially those raising small children. Yet the system of discounts for age, like much else these days – say, Medicare vs. Medicaid – is slanted toward seniors. The logic is rooted in an earlier time.


Back in the day – say, before the ’60s – the assumption was that most old people could make it through their sunset years only with financial and personal help from their grown children. In last few decades, the flow of money and of energy has been largely going the other way (see earlier post).

In two new overview papers (pdf and pdf), sociologists Judith Seltzer and Suzanne Bianchi document the help many American seniors are giving their adult children long past the school years, be it directly with money or through help such as babysitting. (Bianchi, a terrific scholar of American family life, passed away recently, much too soon.) Among the less well-off, parents might largely help by re-opening a bedroom at home or providing after-school care. One study found that about 3 of 10 pre-schoolers are with grandparents when the parents are at work. Among the most affluent, parental help can include buying 20-somethings their own Manhattan apartments (seehere and here).

From those according … to those according …

The hard data on trends are few. Nonetheless, new studies suggest that, while most older Americans do not give significant amounts of money to their adult children — to those, say, 23 and older — more parents are doing so and they are giving greater amounts. Part of the explanation is that the parents (and grandparents) of today’s 20-somethings are somewhat better off than their predecessors were, so they have more to give. And part is that their children are somewhat needier – less likely to be employed and to be married. (See, e.g., pdf and pdf.)

Along similar lines, a study which I reported last summer showed a dramatic change between 1960 and 2010 in households where adults over 24 years old and their parents lived together: Earlier, the parents in these two-generation households typically depended economically on the grown children; now the grown children typically depend economically on the parents.

Adult children also call on parents for practical help and increasingly they rely on the “safety net” parents provide. That is, even when parents do not give any direct help, they provide – if they are themselves economically secure – the emergency back-up that allows young adults to take risks like going back to school or changing jobs.

A striking feature of this trend toward parents giving more is that it rose despite another social trend: increasing cohabitation, divorce, and “blended” families. Children whose parents never married or whose parents broke up are less likely to receive help – usually because the father has distanced himself and often has new children. Similarly, parents are less likely to help step-children. Despite the big increase in the number of children who grew up in such situations, young adults on average are now receiving more direct help from parents.

As noted earlier, not only can today’s elderly better afford to give, today’s young adults, worn down by years of stagnating wages and battered by the Great Recession, need more. Seltzer and Bianchi cite studies showing that the young adults suffered a major loss in wealth and in rates of home ownership in roughly the last two decades, while the elderly reaped a major increase in wealth.

Which parents help which children depends on what parents have and what children need. In the most recent data that Seltzer and Bianchi present, over a third of young adults whose parents had graduated college received money from them in 2011; and those who got something got an average of $9,600. Only one-fifth of the children of high school graduates got money, with an average of $3,200. Over 70% of the young adults with college-graduate parents had gotten help with their educational expenses since they turned 18; about 25% of them got help with housing. For parents able to help, whom they help depends on which child needs help most and when – when going to college, when unemployed, when a new baby arrives.

That American parents are increasingly stretching their time and their budgets to help their adult children testifies that family ties continue to bind; that the need to help has grown testifies to the tight bind that young adults face in the 21st century.

Cross-post from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.