Beanpole Family Structure
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.
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