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Policy Insights

Care Up and Down

Five takeaways from the FamiliesAndSocieties European Policy Brief on intergenerational dependence
Source: Attila Barabas

by Daniela Vono de Vilhena

Whether we are sandwiched or stretched in mid-life is a matter of metaphorical consistency. How we care for our grandparents, parents and children is a matter of policy that affects just about everyone.

The latest FamiliesAndSocieties European Policy Brief on intergenerational dependence provides an overview of the latest trends and what’s at stake in the area of intergenerational transfers—the intra-family movement of resources, like care and money, from one generation to another. Drawing on the latest research, it tells the story of lengthening families and evolving care practices, of pressure from above and below, which it ties off with a series of clear policy recommendations. Here are five takeaways:

One: The three-generation family still reigns supreme despite substantial improvements in life expectancy. Longer lives should mean more generations being alive at once, but we are increasingly postponing childbearing, lengthening the period between those generations.

Alone, this trend does not change much. Most intergenerational transfers still go downward from parents to children, for example. But it does change timing. For instance, it is more likely that we will be supporting our parents in some way while simultaneously raising or supporting children.

Two: Women still have it tougher. Despite increasingly legal parity, old habits seem to die hard. Women still tend to provide more care to both children and elderly parents. They also use fewer public resources to do it. Niels Schenk and his colleagues hypothesise that either women are less likely to indicate they are overburdened by care responsibilities to public authorities, or that men are simply perceived to as lacking caregiving skills, skewing the award of public assistance towards them. Whatever the reason, the higher burden on women is still quite clear.

Three: Transfers—whether up or down—vary by country. For instance, according to data from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe for 2013 only 10% of parents over 50 in Spain provided some sort of support for their adult children, while in Sweden and Denmark the figure was closer to 35%. Every European country saw an increase between 2006 and 2013, though, thanks to economic cris(e)s.

Care is a two-way street, and going in the other direction FamiliesAndSocieties report an interesting trend. More support for elderly parents is provided in countries in which filial support is less valued, not more.

Four: For the “sandwich generation”, the biggest problem is work, or at least reconciling it with their care obligations. In fact, it even seems that work-life balance is more of a challenge than managing the care of both children and parents simultaneously.

It’s worth mentioning that here, again, we see important differences between women and men. Women still use more care leave and receive less help at home, for example, which is consistent with recent research showing that women are also much more likely to leave their jobs because of care obligations than men.

Five: Policies can shape generational independence, but not in a vacuum. For instance, FamiliesAndSocieties highlights the effectiveness of “daddy quotas”, non-transferable allocations of parental/care leave for men. Specifically, results of recent studies indicate that parents with children born after the introduction of the daddy quota are less likely to experience conflicts over the division of household tasks, improving fathers’—especially highly educated fathers’—involvement in childcare. But this only applied to the care of children, not elderly parents—and it did not apply everywhere–suggesting that accompanying measures would be needed.



The policy brief ends with a series of recommendations. In general, FamiliesAndSocieties push for policies that “support intergenerational care regimes without reinforcing gender inequalities.” Legislatively, this means:

  1. Direct benefits, both in-cash and in-services, for adult children who take care of their parents;
  2. Leave regimes for those adult children, including return-to-work guarantees independent of gender;
  3. Concrete measures, like use-it-or-lose-it daddy quota, that motivates fathers to use their social rights, and;
  4. Improvements in social protections for young families, particularly those going through financial hardship while raising children.

Ultimately, if there’s one takeaway, it’s this: understanding and properly supporting intergenerational transfers is an efficient way of improving the wellbeing of children, parents and grandparents. That is, our wellbeing.


About the author:

Daniela Vono de Vilhena, Scientific Coordinator at the Population Europe Secretariat and Former Member/Senior Research Scientist at the European University Institute in Florence/Italy.