Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging

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

Intergenerational Exchanges

  • Howard LitwinEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_508-1



Intergenerational exchanges are a subset of the larger domain of human behaviors that comprise the realm of intergenerational relations. Scholarly work in this sphere has identified six dimensions of intergenerational cohesion or solidarity that underlie and shape the relations and the exchanges between the generations (Bengtson and Roberts 1991). They include (1) structure (geographical proximity), (2) association (contact), (3) affect, (4) consensus, (5) function (exchange), and (6) norms (mutual obligation). The last two of these six dimensions – exchange and obligation – constitute the core of the intergenerational exchange phenomenon, which is the focus of this entry.

The intergenerational exchange construct refers to the variety of transfers that take place between people of different generations. Such actions may involve, for example, the exchange of monetary and material resources, instrumental household assistance, child care, and companionship and advice (Eggebeen 1992). The principal modes of exchange across generations as reflected in the literature, however, are the transfers of time and money (Attias-Donfut et al. 2005). Shared intergenerational housing is sometimes counted within this construct as well, insofar as it may provide a variety of instrumental and financial benefits to the respective parties (Seltzer and Bianchi 2013). The intergenerational transfer of values, which is also noted at times, has been given less attention in the exchange literature and is not considered here further.


The generations involved in exchange generally include two or more age groupings or cohorts that are related through familial ties, but not always. Much research in this area focuses upon the transfers between parents and children and especially between older parents and their adult offspring (Brandt et al. 2009). In addition, the dramatic increase in longevity in the current era has led to a corresponding growing interest in multigenerational exchanges that variously occur. Such inquiry frequently focuses on the role of the pivot generation, that is, middle-aged adults who are “sandwiched” between caring for their older parents and for their own offspring at the same time (Grundy and Henretta 2006). Grandparental care to grandchildren is another form of multigenerational exchange (Hoff 2007), insofar as it enables the pivot generation, most frequently the young mothers, to engage in paid employment outside of the home.

Exchanges may be public, such as those provided through the mechanisms for the payment of social security benefits to retirees by currently working middle-aged adults (Mudrazija 2016), or private, for example, the intrafamilial provision of inter vivos financial transfers by older parents to their adult children (Albertini and Radl 2012), that is, financial assistance that is given while the parents are alive rather than as postmortem bequests. The extent of public and/or private transfers across generations within a given society is influenced by the inter-relations that exist between the public and private domains. Some analysts contend, for example, that greater public transfers reduce the extent of private transfer-giving, a phenomenon known as substitution or “crowding out.” Others hold the opposite position, claiming that greater public transfers actually increase the extent of private transfer-giving, termed correspondingly as “crowding in” (Künemund and Rein 1999).

More recent research clarifies that somewhat more complex intergenerational exchange dynamics may be at play, however. In several cases, for example, public and private care coexist and function in harmony, a phenomenon known as complementarity. A specific form of complementarity is when some forms of support are taken over by the formal public sector while other selected types of assistance are provided by the informal sector. The latter are generally the more personal and individualized aspects of care, the ones most effectively provided by close family members. Complementarity in the care of older adults is more prevalent when the care receivers in question are frail and have multiple needs (Lambotte et al. 2018).

Private Familial Transfers: Motivations, Directions, and Framing Factors

Private familial transfers have been a widely studied field in the last few decades. Research considers the motivations for such giving, whether, for example, they are altruistic in nature or based upon exchange convictions (Kohli and Künemund 2003). The former notion contends that people give to others within the family because it is the right thing to do, that is, normatively prescribed and morally obligated. The latter perspective maintains that intergenerational exchanges are undertaken mainly on a quid pro quo basis. Namely, they are given purposively and specifically in order to receive something in return. The return in question may be immediate (reciprocal exchange) (Silverstein et al. 2002), received at a later date (delayed reciprocity) (Funk 2012) or given to persons other than those involved in the initial exchange (serial exchange). The latter case is exemplified by young parents who help their older parents in day-to-day instrumental tasks as a means to socialize their own children to provide them with similar help, years later, should they need help when they themselves grow old.

Another key aspect of the exchange phenomenon concerns the main directions of the intergenerational transfers that take place, for example, whether the exchange is primarily ascendant in nature (i.e., from younger to older generations) (Sloan and Zhang 1997) or descendant (from older to younger generations) (Hu 2017). Early research maintained that time transfers were more frequently ascendant or upstream in character in developed welfare states, while financial transfers were more frequently descendant or downstream (Attias-Donfut et al. 2005). However, subsequent research has uncovered a more complicated dynamic that underlies the direction of such exchanges. Combining the two main types of exchange by assigning the financial value of the time transfers (i.e., the practical help) so that they may be considered along with financial transfers, it has been found that descendent or downstream transfers dominate the exchange arena, at least until very old age (Grundy 2007; Litwin et al. 2008). Specifically, recent research documents that at about age 75–76, parents become net receivers, a phenomenon that is termed as “parent-driven flow reversal” (Kalmijn 2018). This trend is explained as the result of declining parental opportunities to give.

Intergenerational exchange is also conditioned by contextual factors regarding the main players involved in the transfers. These may include, at the macro level, such framing forces as cultural perspectives (e.g., collectivism versus individualism), political orientation (e.g., welfare state versus free-market mechanisms), and religious or secular values (e.g., filial piety versus modernization) (Dykstra 2018). At the micro level, exchanges may be shaped by the familial relationship of the persons engaged in the transfer, for example, whether the recipient is a natural or adopted child, and by his or her state of need, as illustrated by adult children recipients who are divorced, unemployed, or experiencing other personal distress (Berry 2008). In the latter case, the ability of the recipient to reciprocate in the intergenerational exchange is limited.

Additional factors that shape the nature and the extent of intergenerational exchanges include the gender of the givers and the receivers, their living arrangements and the geographical proximity or distance between them (Ogg and Renaut 2006). Race and ethnicity also affect transfer behaviors (Fingerman et al. 2011) as do socioeconomic status, age, and migration status (origin and acculturation) (Antonucci et al. 2007). Yet another key determinant, as identified in the literature, is the East/West divide according to which intergenerational exchange is molded by the strength or decline of one’s “moral capital,” that is, the internalized social norms that obligate children to support older parents (Silverstein et al. 2012). Although such filial piety is still seen to dominate in traditional collectivist societies and especially in Eastern Asia, it is being challenged by opposing forces, particularly the rise of modernization (Cheung and Kwan 2009).

Exchange Through the Lens of Population Surveys

It should be pointed out that the perception of the prevalence and intensity of intergenerational exchange in a given setting is influenced by the means through which such data are gathered and analyzed. A key source of such information in recent years is the large-scale population surveys that are executed around the globe. These include such efforts as the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) in the United States, the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), and the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study (CHARLS), as well as other such surveys that are reviewed in this volume. While these sources provide invaluable data that enable empirical inquiry into the exchange phenomenon, it must be kept in mind that such data may potentially vary by the different wording of probes in the questionnaires, the time frame for recollection of the exchange on the part of the respondent, and so on (Emery and Mudrazija 2015).

Typologies of Exchange

One important direction of research that seeks to shed light on the state of the intergenerational exchange phenomenon is a series of attempts undertaken to derive typologies of exchange. These are based upon statistical analysis of the various exchange data that are increasingly available (potential shortcomings of the data as mentioned above notwithstanding). The respective typologies all draw upon the rich conceptual realm of intergenerational relations, in general, and intergenerational exchange, in particular.

The first such study noted here, based upon data drawn from the U.S. 1987–88 National Survey of Families and Households, found that four latent classes best fit the data (Hogan et al. 1993). The first class or exchange type derived, and the one most prevalent, reflected a low probability of giving and receiving on all the dimensions of exchange. In the next most prevalent exchange type, assistance was received from aging parents more than it was given. The third grouping represented the converse, that is, giving assistance to aging parents but not receiving help from them. Only a tenth of the respondents, those in the fourth exchange type, were high exchangers, that is, involved in both giving to parents and receiving support from them on several dimensions.

Drawing upon micro-data on respondents from 11 countries from the first wave of SHARE, another team of researchers also found that four latent classes emerged from their analysis (Dykstra and Fokkema 2011). In this case, the exchange types were termed (1) descending familialism, (2) ascending familialism, (3) support-at-distance, and (4) autonomous. The first two types had close proximity across the generations, frequent contact and high norms of obligation. They differed in that in the first, the parents primarily helped the adult children, while in the second, the pattern was reversed. The third grouping was composed of those with little proximity across generations and low norms of obligation but nevertheless frequent contact and some help (mostly financial) from parents to adult children. Those in the fourth exchange type were low on all the exchange indicators.

A third typology focused upon people facing rural–urban migration in China (Guo et al. 2012). Here, latent class analysis yielded five exchange types. A quarter of the respondents were “tight knit,” that is, they showed the highest proximate solidarity and little conflict. Also, proximate but conflictual and with little exchange were those termed “nearby but discordant.” The “distant discordant” exchange type was the same as the previous grouping but distant rather than proximate. A fourth grouping, termed “distant reciprocal,” was characterized by downstream financial transfers and ambivalence. The fifth and largest exchange type grouping was termed “distant ascending.” They practiced child financial support to parents and had high cohesion and little conflict. Thus, despite their geographic relocation, a significant proportion of Chinese adult children maintain substantial filial piety.

The above typologies show some similarities and several differences as to the extent and nature of intergenerational exchange in different settings. It seems, moreover, that differences are also evident within the same settings, suggesting that exchange behaviors are dictated and differentially guided by a wide range of factors. The complicated interplay of these many framing characteristics will require further inquiry, therefore, as people and societies continue to diversify.

The Contribution of Intergenerational Exchanges to Well-Being

A key area of concern in the study of intergenerational exchange is the relationship between transfer activity and well-being in late life. A particular issue of interest is whether intergenerational familial transfers enhance or restrain the personal welfare of those engaged in the exchange: the givers and the recipients. This is a complicated question insofar as poor health and diminished functional capacity are frequently seen as the key precursors of aid provision in the first place, especially with respect to help given to older parents.

The literature presents a range of findings in this regard, relating most frequently to physical health, mental health and life satisfaction as the primary indicators of well-being that are associated with intergenerational exchange. As already noted, physical health is more of a motivating force for familial transfers than it is an effect of such activity. Parents in better health (and better financial state) tend to aid their adult children more than those in poorer health. Conversely, older parents who have disabilities are the ones who receive more support (mostly instrumental and practical assistance) from their adult children (Hogan et al. 1993). Thus, the effect of intergenerational exchange on physical health as a well-being outcome is less considered in the literature.

In contrast, mental health is a frequently considered outcome of one’s engagement in the exchange process. The key question here is whether the act of giving and/or receiving improves one’s mental state or, conversely, worsens it (Liang et al. 2001). Some believe that giving support tends to promote better mental health because it is a rewarding and empowering activity, while receiving support may exacerbate an already poor mental state as it reinforces a sense of dependency on the part of the receiver. However, numerous factors may nuance these assumed associations. For example, the gender and role relationship (e.g., parent or adult child) of the giver and/or the receiver tend to modify the observed relationships between exchange activity and mental health.

The extent of assistance may also moderate the effect of transfers on one’s emotional state. That is, the act of giving can be rewarding up to a certain point, but it may also become burdensome and depressing when the volume of the required assistance turns out to be more than one can or wishes to provide. The opposite dynamic is sometimes observed in relation to receiving. Specifically, when the extent of the help that is desired is greater than the assistance that is actually received, the stress and/or disappointment that may result can have negative implications for one’s mental health.

Several studies have examined the balance between the giving and the receiving of intergenerational transfers and its effect on mental state. Unbalanced exchange occurs when one gives more than one receives, or vice versa. Balanced exchange exists when there is relatively equal reciprocity between givers and receivers. Such reciprocity can be obtained differentially, for example, when parents help adult children financially and, in turn, the adult children assist the parents with practical chores. Empirical studies that were executed in Brazil (Ramos and Wilmoth 2003) and Israel (Litwin 2004), for example, have documented that balanced or reciprocal exchange is associated with less depression and better mood, respectively, than is unbalanced exchange. However, one study in the United States reported that the positive effect of reciprocity has its limits. That is, even among balanced exchangers, the amount of aid exchanged was positively related to depression (Lee et al. 1995).

The trends described above do not tend to occur, to the same degree, in collectivist societies that are motivated by norms of filial piety and by what was described earlier in this entry as moral capital. A study in China (Mjelde-Mossey et al. 2006), for example, found that among the aged parents, adherence to tradition (i.e., filial piety) was negatively related to depression, a measure of poor mental health. Another study of a Chinese sample found that the provision of instrumental support to children improved the parents’ morale and, moreover, this effect was magnified among the parents who adhered to traditional norms of family support (Chen and Silverstein 2000). A study using data from the Korean Longitudinal Study of Ageing found that both giving and receiving were positively associated with emotional well-being (Lee et al. 2014).

Whereas depression reflects poor emotional state, a positive cognitive appraisal of one’s state of being is frequently used to measure good mental health. An index of life satisfaction, or how satisfied one is with the life that one has, is a popular indicator that is employed in this regard. In East Asian societies like Korea, both giving and receiving support are associated with higher levels of life satisfaction. In a study of persons aged 75 and older in four European countries and Israel – the OASIS Project – the active provision of exchange was seen to enhance life satisfaction (Lowenstein et al. 2007). However, receipt of help from adult children in that same study was related to a lower level of life satisfaction.

A final point in this section relates to intergenerational housing as a form of exchange (Isengard and Szydlik 2012) and its association with well-being among the members of the older generation. An analysis using SHARE data found that co-residing with an adult child in Europe reduced depressive symptoms (Courtin and Avendano 2016). Correspondingly, transitions to co-residence with sons and daughters among the widowed in Japan were also found to correlate with reduced depressive symptoms (Tiedt et al. 2016). Intergenerational co-residence in Thailand improved psychological well-being among older parents, but living with a daughter had greater benefits. In Vietnam, living with a married son was more beneficial to the parents, while in Myanmar the effect of co-residence on well-being did not differ by the gender of the co-resident offspring (Teerawichitchainan et al. 2015). In contrast, data from the United States suggest that, currently, the prime beneficiaries of intergenerational co-residence in that venue are the adult children, and the benefit is mainly financial (Kahn et al. 2013).


Intergenerational exchanges are the transfers that take place between people of different generations, particularly the exchange of money and practical assistance (time) between them. The forms of exchange that exist across generations vary in their respective contributions to the well-being of adults in late life. Moreover, the relative effects of these intergenerational transfers are contextualized by culture, gender, role relationships, and a wide range of other factors. Continued investigation into the antecedents and the consequences of intergenerational exchanges will invariably shed further light on the complex web of associations that are played out within this important sphere of life.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social WelfareThe Hebrew UniversityJerusalemIsrael

Section editors and affiliations

  • Joonmo Son
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of SociologyNational University of SingaporeSingaporeSingapore