Intergenerational Exchange between Parents and Migrant and Nonmigrant Sons in Rural China

By Cong, Zhen; Silverstein, Merril | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Intergenerational Exchange between Parents and Migrant and Nonmigrant Sons in Rural China


Cong, Zhen, Silverstein, Merril, Journal of Marriage and Family


This investigation examined whether intergenerational exchanges of time and money resources between older parents and their adult sons in rural China were conditioned on sons' migration status. Data derived from 2001 and 2003 waves of a longitudinal study of 1,126 parents, aged 60 and older, living in rural areas of Anhui Province, China, and their 2,724 adult sons. Random-effects regression analysis showed that marginal financial returns to parents of providing grandchild care services and financial assistance were greater from migrant sons than from nonmigrant sons. We explain these results in terms of strategic investments in the earning potential of migrant sons and the bargaining power wielded by grandparents who care for dependent children of migrants.

Key Words: Asian/Pacific Islander families, families in middle and later life, grandparents, intergenerational transfer, migrant families, parental involvement.

In rural China, more than two thirds of older adults depend almost exclusively on their children for economic support (China Research Center on Aging, 2003; Lee & Xiao, 1998; Zimmer & Kwong, 2003). Upstream intergenerational transfers are considered manifestations of the cultural norm of filial piety - the duty of adult children to guarantee the old-age security of their parents - and as such, they represent a form of altruism on the part of children (Cong & Silverstein, 2008a; Lee & Xiao, 1998; Sun, 2002). However, exchange motivations also guide intergenerational transfers. Older adults strategically invest in their children to maximize the return they receive from them, a perspective built on the power to extract payback from others in whom original investments were made (Becker, 1974; Cox, 1987; Silverstein, Conroy, Wang, Giarrusso, & Bengtson, 2002).

In this investigation, we examine intergenerational exchanges of time and money resources in rural Chinese families with the aim of discovering the role played by children's labor migration in determining the strength of reciprocity. Specifically, we consider migration of sons as a factor guiding parents' investment strategies that optimize financial returns from sons. This is because, in rural Chinese families, resources including time and money are much less likely to be allocated to daughters, particularly married daughters, because of the patrilineal tradition (F. Chen, Short, & Entwistle, 2000; Das Gupta & S. Li, 1999). In addition, sons are likely to migrate for job-related reasons, whereas daughters are likely to migrate for reasons of marriage and their subsequent incorporation into their husband's family, given the practice of patrilocal residence in rural China (Das Gupta & S. Li, 1999).

Motivations for Intergenerational Transfers

Altruism as a motivation for transfers has found wide support in literature on Chinese families (Becker, Zimmer, Korinek, Knodel, & Chayovan, Intergenerational transfers tend to be toward parents and adult children who most in need of economic support, a feature of altruistic tendencies (Lee & 1998; Secondi, 1997; Sung, 1998). altruism alone is not sufficient to children's financial support to their parents or elderly parents' financial to their children. Recent studies have that the intergenerational relationships in follow a bidirectional pattern that resembles exchange of resources. Children tend to support to parents who provided them child and financial resources in response to or exigent need (J. Chen, 2001; S. Li, & Jin, 2004; Sun, 2002; Zhang, 2005).

The mutual-aid model, often used to reciprocal transfer patterns in East families, is a hybrid model in which economic transfers are altruistically offered children with the greatest capacity to to parents with the greatest needs; at the time, transfers are also intended to enhance ability of beneficiaries to reciprocate (Lee Xiao, 1998). Mutual exchange is consistent corporatist notions of intergenerational allocation in which the overarching aim transfers is to maximize the family's well-being (Lee & Xiao, 1998; Sun, 2002). …

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