Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging

Living Edition
| Editors: Danan Gu, Matthew E. Dupre

Beanpole Family Structure

  • Megan GilliganEmail author
  • Luke Huber
  • Leslie A. Winters
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_311-1



The term “beanpole family” was introduced by Vern L. Bengtson in the 1990s to describe “a family structure in which the shape is long and thin, with more family generations alive but with fewer members in each generation” (Bengtson 2001, p. 5).


Since Parsons’s (1943) work depicting a constrained view of the nuclear family (i.e., married couples raising young children), many scholars have moved on to embrace a more comprehensive picture of family relationships. In contrast to Parson’s emphasis on the nuclear family, empirical research has demonstrated that intergenerational ties typically endure throughout the life course. Bengtson introduced the term “beanpole families” to highlight the prevalence and importance of ties between multiple generations of family members (e.g., parents, adult children, grandparents, and grandchildren). Bengtson argued that these beanpole families would take on increasing importance across the twenty-first century (Bengtson 2001).

Key Research Findings

Increased life expectancy over the last several decades has resulted in the growing prevalence of multigenerational families (i.e., three, four, or five generations in a family alive at the same time). Further, individuals can expect to experience many of these ties as adults. For the first time in history, it is common for young adults to have at least one living grandparent. In addition, many older adults may find themselves enacting the role of grandparent, great-grandparent, and maybe even great-great-grandparent (Uhlenberg 2004).

In additional to increases in longevity, decreases in fertility have also contributed to the phenomenon of beanpole families. As the number of children within each generation decreases, increased importance has been placed on ties between generations (Bengtson 2001). Specifically, beanpole families provide opportunities for intergenerational exchanges. For example, smaller family size increases the amount of available emotional, instrumental, and financial resources that grandparents can provide to particular grandchildren (Uhlenberg 2004). Conversely, beanpole families can also constrain family resources. Middle-aged adult children with fewer siblings may face greater responsibility to provide support to their aging parents while simultaneously providing support to their own adult children (Fingerman et al. 2010).

Changes in marriage and divorce patterns have also altered how individuals experience these multigenerational family ties. There is a large body documenting divorce, remarriage, and step-family formation impact parent-child relations (Sanner et al. 2018), and recent attention has been directed toward understanding the implications of these demographic changes for multigenerational family relationships. For example, research indicates that increases in rates of single-parent families means that many parents are often reliant upon their own parents for childcare needs (Swartz 2009). Recent scholarship has documented an increase in divorce among middle-age and older adults (Brown and Lin 2012). Future research should examine the consequences of martial transitions in the older generation. For example, what are the implications of later-life divorce on older adults’ care needs?

A growing body of literature has documented variation in beanpole families by gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and nationality (Gilligan et al. 2018). For example, women with more education tend to wait longer to have their first child (Pew Research Center 2018). As a result, these women are also less likely to be part of multigenerational families. Further, support exchanges in multigenerational families vary by demographic characteristics. For example, Latino families are more likely to have multiple generations correside than their White counterparts (Sarkisian et al. 2006). Compared to other racial and ethnic groups, African-American families are more likely to experience the phenomenon of “skipped generations” in which children live in households headed by a grandparent. In particular, older African-American women often take on the responsibility of being the primary care providers for grandchildren (Mills et al. 2005).

Global increases in life expectancies have resulted in the prevalence of multigenerational families in countries around the world (Pew Research Center 2016). In particular, on average, individuals in Japan live longer than those in any other nation. Japan has also experienced rapid decreases in fertility. As a result, Japanese families are particularly likely to be multigenerational (Antonucci et al. 2004; Naoko and Hiroko 2011). In an effort to accommodate the increase in beanpole families with fewer members in the younger generations, the Japanese government has increased formal support provision available to older adults to compensate for the decrease in available family caregivers.

Future Directions of Research

Future scholarship should continue to document these multigenerational ties to better understand the opportunities and challenges beanpole families create for older individuals and aging societies.


Beanpole families are becoming increasingly common across the twenty-first century. Although this family form is increasing around the world, there is variation in the prevalence and experience of these families by gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality.



  1. Antonucci TC, Akiyama H, Birditt K (2004) Intergenerational exchange in the United States and Japan. Annu Rev Gerontol Geriatr 24:224–248Google Scholar
  2. Bengtson VL (2001) The burgess award lecture: beyond the nuclear family: the increasing importance of multigenerational bonds. J Marriage Fam 63(1):1–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Brown SL, Lin IF (2012) The gray divorce revolution: rising divorce among middle-aged and older adults, 1990–2010. J Gerontol: Ser B 67:731–741CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Fingerman KL, Pitzer LM, Chan W, Birditt K, Franks MM, Zarit S (2010) Who gets what and why? Help middle-aged adults provide to parents and grown children. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci 66:87–98Google Scholar
  5. Gilligan M, Karraker A, Jasper A (2018) Linked lives and cumulative inequality: a multigenerational family life course framework. J Fam Theor Rev 10:111–125CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Mills TL, Gomez-Smith Z, De Leon JM (2005) Skipped generation families: sources of psychological distress among grandmothers of grandchildren who live in homes where neither parent is present. Marriage Fam Rev 37:191–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Naoko M, Hiroko A (2011) Japan: super-aging society preparing for the future. Gerontologist 51:425–432CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Parsons T (1943) The kinship system of the contemporary United States. Am Anthropol 45:22–38.  https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1943.45.1.02a00030CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Pew Research Center (2016) World’s centenarian population projected to grow eightfold by 2050. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/21/worlds-centenarian-population-projected-to-grow-eightfold-by-2050/
  10. Pew Research Center (2018) They’re waiting longer, but U.S. women today more likely to have children than a decade ago. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/01/18/theyre-waiting-longer-but-u-s-women-today-more-likely-to-have-children-than-a-decade-ago/pstl_1-18-18-motherhood-05/
  11. Sanner C, Russell LT, Coleman M, Ganong L (2018) Half-sibling and stepsibling relationships: a systematic integrative review. J Fam Theor Rev 10:765–784CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Sarkisian N, Gerena M, Gerstel N (2006) Extended family ties among Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and whites: superintegration or disintegration? Fam Relat 55: 331–344CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Swartz TT (2009) Intergenerational family relations in adulthood: patterns, variations, & implications in the contemporary United States. Ann Rev Sociol 35: 191–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Uhlenberg P (2004) Relationships. Springer Publishing Company, 23:77Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Megan Gilligan
    • 1
    Email author
  • Luke Huber
    • 1
  • Leslie A. Winters
    • 1
  1. 1.Human Development and Family StudiesIowa State UniversityAmesUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Naomi J. Spence
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Sociology - Lehman CollegeCity University of New YorkBronxUSA