Beyond the Nuclear Family: The Increasing Importance of Multigenerational Bonds

Article excerpt

THE BURGESS AWARD LECTURE*

Family relationships across several generations are becoming increasingly important in American society. They are also increasingly diverse in structure and in functions. In reply to the widely debated "family decline" hypothesis, which assumes a nuclear family model of 2 biological parents and children, I suggest that family multigenerational relations will be more important in the 21st century for 3 reasons: (a) the demographic changes of population aging, resulting in "longer years of shared lives" between generations; (b) the increasing importance of grandparents and other kin in fulfilling family functions; (c) the strength and resilience of intergenerational solidarity over time. I also indicate that family multigenerational relations are increasingly diverse because of (a) changes in family structure, involving divorce and stepfamily relationships; (b) the increased longevity of kin; (c) the diversity of intergenerational relationship "types. " Drawing on the family research legacy of Ernest W. Burgess, I frame my arguments in terms of historical family transi

tions and hypotheses. Research from the Longitudinal Study of Generations is presented to demonstrate the strengths of multigenerational ties over time and why it is necessary to look beyond the nuclear family when asking whether families are still functional.

Key Words: aging, grandparents, intergenerational relationships, social change and families.

During the past decade, sociologists have been engaged in an often heated debate about family change and family influences in contemporary society. This debate in many ways reflects the legacy of Ernest W Burgess (1886-1965), the pioneer of American family sociology. It can be framed in terms of four general hypotheses, each of which calls attention to significant transitions in the structure and functions of families over the 20th century.

The first and earliest hypothesis concerns the emergence of the "modern" nuclear family form following the Industrial Revolution. This transition (suggested by Burgess in 1916 and elaborated by Ogburn, 1932, and Parsons, 1944) proposed that the modal structure of families had changed from extended to nuclear, and its primary functions had changed from social-institutional to emotional-supportive. The second hypothesis concerns the decline of the modern nuclear family as a social institution, a decline said to be attributable to the fact that its structure has been truncated (because of high divorce rates) and its functions further reduced (Popenoe, 1993). A third hypothesis can be termed the increasing heterogeneity of family forms, relations that extend beyond biological or conjugal relationship boundaries. Growing from the work of feminist scholars (Coontz, 1991; Skolnick, 1991; Stacey, 1990), and research on racial and ethnic minority families (Burton, 1995; Collins, 1990; Stack, 1974), this perspective suggests that family structures and relationships should be redefined to include both "assigned" and "created" kinship systems (Cherlin, 1999). I suggest a fourth hypothesis for consideration: The increasing importance of multigenerational bonds. I propose that relations across more than two generations are becoming increasingly important to individuals and families in American society; that they are increasingly diverse in structure and functions; and that in the early 21st century, these multigenerational bonds will not only enhance but in some cases replace nuclear family functions, which have been so much the focus of sociologists during the 20th century.

In this article, I first summarize the "Burgess legacy" in American family sociology and relate it to the four hypotheses summarized above. Then I suggest some foundations for my hypotheses concerning the increasing importance and diversity of multigenerational relationships, starting from a discussion of macrosocial trends (population aging and intergenerational family demography) and moving to microsocial dimensions (solidarity and types of crossgenerational relationships). …

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