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The Nature of 'the Family' and Family Obligations in the Twenty-First Century

Family structures and relationships are of huge interest to both the public and social scientists from many disciplinary backgrounds. We argue, in this book, that family relationships are affected by a range of factors, not least family structures and various socio-economic and demographic drivers. For example, as we saw in Chap. 2, fertility rates fell in the last three decades of the twentieth century and this means that older generations have fewer children and grandchildren to support (or be supported by). Women are also having children later, which could mean that fewer generations are alive at the same time, but this change has been more than offset by increases in life expectancy. Family life is also now more diverse and complex due to the rise in cohabitation, divorce, lone parenthood, same-sex marriage and re-partnering. So while it is true that the traditional 1950s ‘nuclear’ family (in the form of two married heterosexual parents with their biological dependent children) has declined from the 1960s onwards, a new nuclear family has evolved, with most children still living with two parents for most, if not all, of their childhoods (see Chap. 3).

The change in nature of the nuclear family has occurred at the same time as we have seen changes in the nature of the extended family with strengthening bonds between generations, according to the evidence presented throughout this book. Those bonds may also be more complex as they include more ‘step’ family relationships. Changes in education, labour markets and housing may also mean that ‘children’ require support for longer periods of time than the traditional ‘nuclear’ family idea suggests. And we are certainly seeing young people stay in the family home for longer (or, indeed, returning there later in life). Increases in life expectancy are also affecting family relationships as grandparents and, indeed, great-grandparents are surviving for longer.

While the decline of the traditional 1950s nuclear family has been lamented by some, we should remember that the rise of the nuclear family from the 1930s onwards was, itself, a cause of concern at that time, as the involvement of extended kin in family life appeared to lessen, leading to weaker levels of ‘inter-generational solidarity’. This concept of solidarity within families has also been widely debated and critiqued for perhaps under-playing the role of conflict in families (see Chap. 3) and, more recently, the concept of ambivalence has proved helpful in understanding the nature of family life—not just psychological ambivalence within individuals but also between social expectations/norms and individual beliefs/feelings about what is the right way for families to relate to each other.

Our empirical research, presented throughout this book, has certainly found evidence of considerable inter-generational support/solidar- ity within families, confirming that there is no ‘decline of the family’ in that sense. In fact, it seems more likely that ‘the family’ is becoming increasingly important to many people, given the current economic climate. Indeed, we may even consider referring to this as a potential process of ‘re-familialisation’. Having said this, our survey research in Chap. 4 showed that while people express strong support for helping family members, only a minority of the population in 2014 had ever received lifetime gifts (worth ?500 or more), a lower percentage than in 2004. We argue that this decline is due to people having fewer resources to support family members in the wake of one of the longest and deepest recessions in British history. By contrast, 2004 was largely a time of economic prosperity. Even then, however, it was still only a minority who reported receiving a lifetime gift, so does this, as we claim, reflect strong family solidarity? This is an interesting point to consider—what level would suggest a high level of family solidarity given that such gifts are based on a judgement about the need of the potential recipient and the ability of the potential donor within the context of a welfare state in which notions of independent adulthood predominate? Our research certainly found that when relatives felt they needed support, their fam?ily rallied round to help—or said they would do so when asked about hypothetical situations.

Of course, some groups were more likely to receive lifetime gifts in 2014—particularly those in professional and senior managerial occupations. These groups were also more likely to receive very substantial gifts worth over ?10,000, suggesting ever growing inequality between an increasing group of people who receive no lifetime gifts at all and a minority who are receiving ever more. We also asked about loans in our survey and found that one in ten of the population had given or received a substantial loan from family or friends. This, again, was more common among middle-class respondents who were, however, least likely to have paid the loan back.

Lifetime gifts tended to flow down the generations, but there were some indications that wider kin networks were becoming more important than they had been in 2004, with more gifts being given by aunts/ uncles, siblings and friends, particularly in working-class families.

Our qualitative work also highlighted a range of complexities around inter-generational gifts and loans. People did not generally like to ask for financial support—or even accept it when offered. Where they did ask for help, people tended to ask for loans rather than gifts. Loans, however, were not always repaid and so were sometimes converted, effectively, into gifts. The giving and receiving of lifetime gifts was often negotiated, involving agreements about what and how the money might be used. Sometimes, conditions were attached, for example, in terms of ‘matched savings’ or in terms of what the money would be spent on. A key motivation for giving a gift was to help younger people to make the transition to adulthood by behaving more ‘responsibly’ and ‘independently’ (e.g. by giving money to buy a car or help them with university costs)—see Chap. 5. But young people had to also show that they could save or handle money carefully. This was how many families negotiated the structural ambivalence caused by the clash between prevailing cultural norms of ‘independence’ and the provision of (in some cases) considerable levels of financial support to their members.

Our qualitative work delved deeper into many of these issues with a number of strong themes emerging (see Chap. 5). As mentioned above, donors talked about helping younger people to become independent, for example, in relation to housing and education. This desire was also linked, however, to preserving or improving their children’s social class position. Some parents reflected on the potential irony that the provision of financial support was seen as the way to achieve independence. Others were concerned about potentially ‘spoiling’ their children in the sense that children would find it more difficult to become independent if they were given (too much) support. However, this was then balanced with the desire to avoid family members struggling if resources were (easily) available to help them out.

While the focus of much gift-giving was on supporting independence for children, it should be remembered that this also meant independence for adults (see Chap. 5). Once children moved away or had cars, the parents became ‘free’ of certain parental forms of work, such as giving their children lifts or looking after them in their own home. Having said all this about the concept of independence, we did, of course, include some families in our study, who continued to live together in multigenerational households for many years, combining accommodation and finances. This demonstrates that prevailing ‘norms’ are not the same for all families.

This book also therefore sheds light on how family membership is seen. In some families, as we have just stated, different generations shared money very closely and even lived together. In others, when family members found themselves in financial difficulty, broader family networks of parents and siblings worked together to help each other out. Problems were therefore sometimes jointly owned and resolved though this could sometimes raise sensitive issues with recipients of aid feeling grateful and wishing to repay their relatives in some way. In other families, generations were more separate and even different ‘sides’ of the family were quite distinct with gifts given by parents-in-law seen very differently from gifts given by people’s own parents.

The overall picture from our qualitative sample is one of family solidarity and negotiation where members help each other when in need but do so with some expectation that the recipient will act ‘responsibly’ in return. Notions of reciprocity were therefore important here, though not typically in terms of direct and equal reciprocity. Of course, this sample was small and selective, but it generally also reflected the picture we found in our much larger, representative survey.

Previous research on lifetime gifts and inheritance has considered, quite rightly, the impact that such support can make on recipients’ lives (see Chap. 5). And we certainly found examples of gifts making a major difference to people, for example, in terms of housing support or support to go to university or support to clear a problem debt. Once again, the fact that some families are able to provide such support whereas others are not suggests that intra-generational inequality (of outcome and opportunity) will increase as a result of such gifts. But our research has also looked at the impact of gifts in terms of how relationships are affected by them. We found that neither donors nor recipients generally said that these gifts made a difference to the relationships they had with each other. This could be because those who gave such gifts already had good relationships with their families, and the gifts were therefore just a sign or ‘symptom’ of this rather than leading to a change in the relationship. However, a substantial minority did report that gifts strengthened their relationships, particularly in working-class families. Loans were also more likely, on balance, to strengthen rather than weaken relationships but they were also more likely, compared to gifts to weaken relationships, particularly from the point of view of the lender. And this was particularly the case among middle-class lenders, who were less likely to have their loans repaid. Those who received loans did not report such a weakening and we do not know, from our data, if they were conscious of how the lender might see the impact on the relationship where it was different from their own view of it.

There has also been relatively little research on the impact of gift-giving on donors. In this regard, we found that most did not have difficulty finding money for gifts, though a significant minority did, particularly among working-class donors (see Chap. 5). Most people found the money from regular income or savings. Middle-class donors were more likely to find the money through other assets, such as pension lump sums, selling shares and down-sizing their property. Working-class donors were more likely to face difficulties finding money for gifts. And those who did find it difficult to fund gifts were more likely to be helping relatives with debt problems and everyday living expenses. They were also more likely than average to fund the gifts through taking out personal loans and selling possessions.

Respondents referred to the provision of financial support within families as reflecting what families are ‘all about’. Part of this was a reciprocal generational contract in the sense of every generation helping the next one in order that all generations benefit. For others, there was more direct reciprocation occurring between family members. Some people referred to financial support as part of parental duty towards children, though this was not in the sense of an onerous ‘obligation’. It was, again, part of defining what a parent’s role was. The over-arching impression from the interviews was that gift-giving forms a key part (though not always a very conscious part) of ‘doing family’. In this way, family relationships were negotiated and ‘performed’ not as a means for people to maximise their self-interest or consciously ensure a degree of reciprocity but as part of a process during which people sought to do the ‘right’ thing as a family member. This was often a complex process but one where the moral question of doing good or right was uppermost—see below also. And this process did not simply involve a rational process of deliberation but one in which a huge range of emotions were experienced from affection/ love, happiness and hope to pride, guilt and anxiety (see Chaps. 5 and 6).

As well as asking people about their own actual experiences of giving and receiving gifts, we also asked people for their views about hypothetical scenarios in order to provide the first nationally representative survey of ‘social norms’ around giving and receiving financial support within families in the UK (see Chap. 6). Following Finch and Mason (1993), part of the aim of the survey was to measure the extent to which there might be any (changing) social norms here and we did, indeed, find a fair degree of consensus in 2014 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 to pay off a young person’s debt if it meant financial hardship for the parents. Nor was there a con?sensus 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 suggests some changes over time since Finch and Mason’s (1993) study in Greater Manchester in 1987, suggesting that any ‘norms’ are not fixed but can change over time. Overall, people in 2014 seemed to think that families should give (even) more to support each other, financially, than they had in 1987. This therefore suggests that the decline in actual lifetime gifts from 2004 to 2014 highlighted in Chap. 4 was not due to a decline in family solidarity but that both trends were due to the impact of recession and austerity with families both needing more support but finding it more difficult to provide.

There were also some interesting variations in answers by social class, again suggesting that ‘social norms’ or ‘lay moralities’ vary according to different groups in society rather than providing a fixed and universal set of principles (see Chap. 5). 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. This is likely to reflect the experiences of these groups, with middle-class people being more likely to have experienced university and seen the value of ‘investing’ in higher education. Working-class people may have less experience and be more wary of their children taking on a large ‘debt’ to finance their studies. By contrast, middle-class people may have less experience of debt problems and perhaps see them as the ‘fault’ of the individual for managing their money badly. Working-class people may have more experience and appreciate that these may be caused by a lack of, or drop in, income. They may therefore be more supportive in terms of helping others in this situation. 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. Once again, their positive experiences of home ownership are likely to influence their views here.

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. This echoes the discussions we had about support given and received within people’s own families (see above). 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 a student was struggling on his/her student loan because they were spending it on social activity, 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 therefore 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, once again, 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 and a minimal level of service due to concern about both the cost and the impact on behaviour). It is not possible, from our study, to understand how views about family support are linked to the design of welfare states—whether there is a direct causal relationship one way or the other—or perhaps feeding back and forth.

While much of the discussion focused, understandably, on the individuals in the vignettes, there was also some spontaneous discussion of the broader structural factors, such as difficulties in the labour market, housing market and welfare state. People certainly felt that families should play a role to support each other in difficult times but they also, again quite spontaneously, argued that the welfare state should play its part too. This view was particularly strongly expressed in relation to social care. People felt that the state should provide a decent level of care, drawing on the contributions people made during their working life. Families might then choose to provide or supplement care for their elderly relatives but should be able to do so as a positive choice rather than as a requirement due to deficiencies in the state system.

 
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