Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Help to Family and Friends: Are There Gender Differences at Older Ages?

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Help to Family and Friends: Are There Gender Differences at Older Ages?

Article excerpt

This article uses recent data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (N = 5,220) to explore gender differences in the extent to which adults in their 50s and 60s provide informal help to their adult children, elderly parents, and friends. We find that both men and women report very high levels of helping kin and nonkin alike, although women do more to assist elderly parents, and women provide much more emotional support to others than do men. Men provide more assistance than women with housework, yard work, and repairs. As they retire from the workforce, married men become significantly more involved in the care of their grandchildren, which virtually eliminates any gender difference by the time they are in their 60s.

Key Words: caregiving, gender, informal support, intergenerational support, retirement.

Despite considerable changes in men's and women's work and family roles in recent decades, men still spend more hours in the paid workforce than women, and women perform more unpaid labor than men. Studies have shown repeatedly that, compared to men, women do more housework, child care, and care of kin than men (Bianchi, Robinson, & Milkie, 2006; Gerstel, 2000; Hochschild, 1989). However, most studies focus on adults in their prime working ages, when work-family conflicts are greatest.

By the time men and women reach retirement age, women have typically spent 20 or 30 years meeting children's day-to-day needs, including emotional needs. Men have concentrated on providing financially for family members, with their interaction with their children and other kin often mediated through their wife (Lareau, 2000). If these early-life patterns endure, older women will be more heavily engaged than older men in helping other relatives such as aging parents and grandchildren.

Yet the gender gap in providing assistance to kin is likely to vary across the life course, which reflects the changing demands of work and family life (Rexroat & Shehan, 1987; Solomon, Acock, & Walker, 2004; Szinovacz, 2000). On the one hand, as children age into adulthood and leave the parental home, housework and childcare demands greatly decrease for both men and women, though probably much more so for women. On the other hand, at retirement, men's need or desire to reorient their time toward other meaningful activities may actually be greater than for women because men invested so heavily in paid work earlier in life. One area of meaningful activity is helping family members and rekindling connections with friends.

This article examines changes in the gender gap in informal helping behaviors for a cohort of U.S. adults as they age from their 50s into their mid-60s. During this period, many empty the nest, retire from full-time employment, and make new decisions about how to spend their time. We look specifically at gender differences in the extent to which adults report helping others, both within and outside of their families. Our measures of "help work" incorporate activities ranging from providing practical support such as transportation and help with housework and yard work to caring for grandchildren and providing emotional support to family and friends. The importance of helping others in later life, particularly others outside one's own household, derives in part from the social support networks that such behaviors help establish and maintain (Bengtson, 2001; Swartz, 2009). By caring for their aging parents, older adults demonstrate to their children their own expectations for the obligations one should have to kin (Cox & Stark, 2005). By assisting adult children, parents potentially obligate those children to help them in the future when they need assistance. And the help they give to friends and neighbors solidifies social support networks later in life, particularly when children live far away or focus on their own families and are unavailable to provide assistance.

In this study, we explore gender differences in providing help to others. …

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