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Home arrow Education arrow Inter-generational Financial Giving and Inequality: Give and Take in 21st Century Families



Our research provides the first nationally representative survey of social norms around giving and receiving financial support within families in the UK. Part of the aim of the survey was to measure the extent to which there were any social norms here and we did, indeed, find a fair degree of consensus around some types of financial support. For example, more than 75 per cent of the population agreed that parents should help to pay a student’s living expenses while at university; relatives should offer to house families with children that had been evicted; and relatives should offer to house families with children who were returning from abroad. There was also a consensus that a family with young children should go without a holiday rather than borrow the money either from family or a more formal lender. There was no consensus, however, on some other types of financial support. For example, there was no consensus on whether or not parents should help pay off a young person’s debt if it meant financial hardship for the parents. Nor was there a consensus on whether or not a young couple should try to borrow from relatives for a deposit nor whether relatives should offer to pay a contribution to private nursing costs.

Our survey found some changes over time since a similar study in Greater Manchester in 1987. Overall, people in 2014 seemed to think that families should do (even) more to support each other, financially, than they had in 1987. This therefore suggests that the decline in lifetime gifts from 2004 to 2014 highlighted in Chap. 4 is not due to a decline in family/inter-generational solidarity but that both trends are due to the impact of recession and austerity—with families both needing more support but finding it more difficult to provide. There was one exception, however, to the increase in desire to support family member and this was in relation to supporting a family to have a holiday.

There were some interesting variations in answers by social class. Middle-class respondents were more positive than working-class respondents towards supporting young people at university but less positive about supporting young people with debt problems. Middle-class respondents were also more positive than working-class respondents to say that a young couple should borrow from relatives to get a deposit on a home. This might suggest that families are more supportive of helping members with financial matters that they have experience of themselves. It might also suggest, however, different abilities to help members as support for higher education and home ownership may be more substantial than support for paying off debt. This would not, however, explain why middle-class people were less positive towards helping people pay off their debts.

There were also some interesting and perhaps even surprising age differences with younger people appearing to be more positive towards families helping their members than older people. This was not just in relation to types of support which young people would benefit from (such as housing support) but also in relation to types of support that older people would benefit from (such as paying a contribution to private nursing costs).

Throughout our quantitative, but even more so with our qualitative research, a number of key themes emerged. First of all, respondents were concerned to support people in need and so considerable thought went into whether or not the people requiring help were actually in need. For example, the couple who wanted to borrow to go on holiday were not necessarily considered to be in need as a holiday was seen, by many, as something optional rather than a necessity, hence few people supported relatives asking to borrow money for such purposes. Respondents were more likely to see the need to support a family with accommodation following eviction as responding to need. Respondents also considered how the need had arisen and made judgements about people’s deservingness. For example, if the student was struggling on his/her student loan because they were spending it on going out then the level of need/ deservingness was not considered so great and some even thought that, by providing help, this would just reinforce the ‘irresponsible’ behaviour which had caused the need. There was much comment about the behaviour and character of those who needed help. People were expected to do their best to help themselves, for example, in terms of looking for work (in the case of the student and to some extent the relatives needing accommodation if they were out of work). Older relatives were expected to pay for their care from their savings before calling on family members. The need to encourage and/or support people to be independent was a key theme in responses. And as well as focusing on the level of need and the character of those requiring help, respondents also talked about the ability of relatives to help. The resources of the potential donor were therefore important to consider, as was the quality of the relationship between the relatives in need and the potential donor.

Views about family support therefore had strong parallels with many of the criteria applied in the neo-liberal welfare state (means-testing, deservingness, conditionality, minimal level of support due to concern about cost and impact on ‘independence/individual responsibility’). It is interesting to speculate on the relationship between views on the criteria for family support and similar views about criteria for support from the welfare state. Do views about the appropriate basis for family support shape the way that more formal welfare services are developed? Or does the structure of formal services impact on attitudes to family support? Perhaps both sets of attitudes are affected by other drivers with a broader shift towards the neo-liberal ideology of individual responsibility and independence? And what drives changes in these attitudes over time? This study cannot completely answer these questions but it can, hopefully, throw some light on them and raise them for further discussion.

While many of the interviewees talked, understandably, about the behaviour of the individuals in the vignettes, there was also some discussion of the broader structural factors, such as difficulties in the higher education sector, labour market, housing market and welfare state.

Interviewees felt that families should support members more precisely because it was more difficult for younger people to access higher education, get a job and a home. However, there was also a concern that if families did support each other more, then this would enable the state to reduce its provision further and this was a particular concern in relation to long-term care. Interviewees felt that the state should do more to provide decent services rather than rely on the family to do so in the first instance.


Finch, J., & Mason, J. (1991). Obligations of kinship in contemporary Britain: Is there normative agreement? The British Journal of Sociology, 42(3), 345—367. Finch, J., & Mason, J. (1993). Negotiating family responsibilities. London: Routledge.

Mack, J., & Lansley, S. (2015). Breadline Britain: The rise of mass poverty. London: One World Publications.

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