Short-Term Reciprocity in Late Parent-Child Relationships

By Leopold, Thomas; Raab, Marcel | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2011 | Go to article overview
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Short-Term Reciprocity in Late Parent-Child Relationships


Leopold, Thomas, Raab, Marcel, Journal of Marriage and Family


Long-term concepts of parent-child reciprocity assume that the amount of support given and received is only balanced in a generalized fashion over the life course. We argue that reciprocity in parent-child relationships also operates in the short term. Our analysis of short-term reciprocity focuses on concurrent exchange in its main upward and downward currencies, time and money. Fixed-effects models with data from SHARE (N = 8,816 dyads) revealed that within a family, parents gave financial transfers to those children who supported them with time transfers of help and care. Reciprocal patterns emerged most clearly if parents were highly dependent, received intense support, and had sufficient financial opportunities to reciprocate. We conclude that short-term reciprocity eases the burden of late parent-child relationships.

Key Words: ambivalence, cross-national research, families in middle and later life, intergenerational transfers, parent-child relations, reciprocity.

In Western economies, children can expect continuous financial support from their parents, who remain net givers after retirement and even at very old ages. Conversely, children provide several types of time transfers to their parents, ranging from occasional help with daily activities to hands-on care (Rossi & Rossi, 1990). As a result, we observe a variety of transfers in both directions that constitute an overall pattern of support exchange in two main currencies: time and money (Soldo & Hill, 1993).

Accounting for the observed patterns of intergenerational support exchange becomes increasingly important as demographic aging raises the prevalence of parents' old-age dependency (e.g., Harper, 2006). This increases the pressure on adult children, who are, next to spouses, the most reliable source of support for old and frail parents. How do intergenerational relationships develop under conditions of higher need, dependency, and burden?

Recent empirical studies have drawn on the concept of reciprocity to account for exchange patterns of intergenerational support (e.g., Grundy, 2005; Henretta, Hill, Li, Soldo, & Wolf, 1997; Lennartsson, Silverstein, & Fritzell, 2010; Lowenstein, Katz, & Gur-Yaish, 2007; Silverstein, Conroy, Wang, Giarrusso, & Bengtson, 2002). The main idea of reciprocity in parentchild relationships refers to long-term exchange: Adult children feel indebted to their old and frail parents, who supported them earlier, and use time transfers of help and care as repayments for the earlier parental investments (Hollstein & Bria, 1998). Some analysts, however, focused on short-term patterns of concurrent giving and receiving and labeled these patterns reciprocal, although it remains unclear why the observed behavior constitutes a reciprocal exchange and how it differs from long-term reciprocity (e.g., Albertini, Kohli, & Vogel, 2007; Brandt, Deindl, Haberkern, & Szydlik, 2008; Grundy, 2005; Lowenstein et al., 2007). A theoretical concept of short-term reciprocity in parent-child relationships has not been offered to date.

The present study aims to address this deficit. We outline a concept why reciprocity in parent-child relations operates not only longitudinally but also contemporaneously. Our analysis concentrates on the short-term dimension of reciprocity and the corresponding pattern of concurrent intergenerational exchange in its main upward and downward currencies, time and money. The key questions are as follows: Why can concurrent transfers be interpreted as reciprocal exchange? How can we identify shortterm reciprocity? Which factors determine these exchanges of time and money?

Data come from the first wave (2004) of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), including respondents from 12 countries. Because these countries represent different welfare regimes (Esping-Andersen, 1990; Ferrera, 1996) as contexts for intergenerational support exchange in families, SHARE allows for comparative analyses.

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