Academic journal article Demographic Research

Intergenerational Family Constellations in Contemporary Europe: Evidence from the Generations and Gender Survey

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Intergenerational Family Constellations in Contemporary Europe: Evidence from the Generations and Gender Survey

Article excerpt


Demographic research has drawn attention to the multiple ways in which changes in mortality and childbearing have produced major shifts in intergenerational family structures. The aim of this article is to contribute to this body of research by analysing the data from the Generations and Gender Surveys for nine European countries. In the study, data pertaining to the availability of ascending (parents and grandparents) and descending (children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren) kin of each respondent are combined to shed light on the family structures in which individuals are embedded at various stages of their lives. The findings provide new insights into the ways in which various past and present demographic regimes come together to form specific intergenerational family constellation patterns across Europe. This convergence may yield family constellations of very similar "heights" in countries with sharply contrasting demographic histories. The results also indicate that certain demographic scenarios may halt or temporarily reverse the trend towards the further vertical extension of family constellations.

1. Introduction

Intergenerational support within the family is recognised as being fundamentally important to individual well-being and social integration. Research investigating the foundations of changes in the family has drawn attention to ways in which variations in mortality, fertility, and nuptiality translate into major shifts in the number and configuration of ties through which intergenerational support is provided and received (Watkins, Menken, and Bongaarts 1987; Uhlenberg 1996; Murphy and Grundy 2003). According to a widely accepted theory of family change during the transition to the modern demographic regime, declines in mortality and fertility have resulted in the verticalisation of family structures: i.e., more generations are alive, but with fewer members in each generation (Bengtson, Rosenthal, and Burton 1990).

Demographic transition theorists (Notestein 1953; Kirk 1996) expected the shifttowards the modern demographic regime to result in a new equilibrium between low levels of mortality and fertility. However, developments have not occurred as forecast. Following a brief respite provided by the post-war baby boom, fertility resumed its decline and fell below replacement levels (Frejka and Sardon 2004; Frejka and Sobotka 2008). Although the 2000s have witnessed some recovery, fertility remains under replacement in virtually all of the countries of Europe (Goldstein, Sobotka, and Jasilioniene 2009). With regard to longevity, predictions about stagnation in life expectancy have not been realised, and mortality has continued to decline even in countries with the highest life expectancy (Oeppen and Vaupel 2002; Vallin and Meslé 2009).

These developments continue to transform family constellations, with significant implications for well-being and social integration, but the nature and extent of these changes is relatively poorly charted. A major reason for this lack of knowledge is related to the availability of data, since a comprehensive understanding of family structures cannot be derived from conventional sources of demographic information. Measures based on vital statistics are indispensable for describing trends in mortality and fertility; however, they appear to have limited ability to provide insight into the ways in which the different processes interact, affect families, and shape lives. The measures based on household units that are prevalent in censuses and surveys usually disregard non-co-residing family members.

Family demographers have devised different strategies for analysing kin networks beyond the household. One frequently used approach relies on simulation models that provide estimates of kin networks under a specified demographic regime (Le Bras 1973; Bongaarts, Burch, and Wachter 1987; Smith and Oeppen 1993; Van Imhoffand Post 1998). …

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