Today’s family is a beanpole family, a multigenerational family.  Never in the history of mankind have so many generations lived simultaneously.

Though co-residence hardly exists any more, contacts and solidarity prevail. A study by Dykstra et al. (2011) identified four different types of help based on data from the European SHARE project.

These four types of help are as follows:

The first type is where help goes from parents to children in what the authors called descending familialism. Out of the eleven European countries under research, descending familialism was found present in around a third of the countries.

The second type titled ascending familialism, which goes from children to parents, varies starkly across Europe. In Sweden, for example, it was found to exist in 19 percent of the cases, and in Spain in as many as 44 percent of the cases. It can roughly be said that ascending familialism is high in the south of Europe and low in the north.

The third type of help has been named autonomous, and it describes the situation where family members belonging to different generations are not living geographically near one another, are not obliged to family norms and have few support exchanges. In the European average, a third of all family contacts fall in this category, with the lowest reaching 19 percent in Greece and the highest 45 percent in France.

The fourth type is named supportive-at-distance, and it describes the type of help where people do not live nearby but have frequent contact with one another and maintain that their contact  is not based on obligatory family norms only. On average, only 7 percent of all families falls in this category.


What do these results mean?

First of all, we can confirm that structure matters: Availability of contact makes it more likely to take place, whereas with distance such contact becomes less likely as does, in turn, mutual help. Secondly, there are different positions as regards family norms: Most of those who live near one another feel an obligation to help. Therefore, when families live at a distance the obligation to help loses strength.

This is said to change in future if we take into account the increasing importance of the Internet. Though help cannot be provided physically through WhatsApp or Skype, Facebook or Twitter, or any social media that will appear, families can nevertheless communicate.

It is also true that Internet communication does not provide the quality of a meeting face to face, but one can still exchange information about everyday life, discuss matters, share insights and chat.

The Internet will change family communication even more than it has already. Just take one example: In the time of landline telephones, any household member could lift the receiver and call the family. Nowadays, in the time of the cell phone, we all call the actual person we wish: mothers or fathers, for instance.

For those unable to meet, the Internet is a useful tool that will bring families closer together across borders and, in case of migration, it is said to become even more important than it already is.

Source: Dykstra, P. A., & Fokkema, T. (2011). Relationships between parents and their adult children: A West European typology of late-life families. Ageing & Society, 31, 545-569

2 thoughts on “Mutual help across generations

  1. This is interesting, and in the age of the internet, social media and the mobility of extended families, the notion of ‘help’ and support hasn’t been strengthened, but weakened. There seems to be an overwhelming ‘bootstraps’ mentality among families that prohibits the supportive relationships among families, esp. when they are located across the globe and not in nearby communities.
    Is it about proximity, closeness or connectedness, or is it an overall lack of empathy for family? Very curious!


    1. The countries under research were European nations, most of tehm with elaborated welfare policy measures giving providing a lot of care by the state – though also very different in Europe. But there are certainly two processes: the further away family members live from ach othere, the less mutual help. But on the other hand, communication rises. Through social media theer might be even a strengthening of family contact in communicating.

      Liked by 1 person

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