Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging

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

Intergenerational Solidarity

  • Roseann GiarrussoEmail author
  • Norella M. Putney
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_901-1



Intergenerational solidarity refers to the quality of relationships between family members up and down the generational line such as those between (a) parents and children, (b) grandparents and grandchildren, and (c) great-grandparents and great-grandchildren. In contrast, intragenerational solidarity refers to the quality of relationships between family members in the same generation such as those between (a) spouse/partners or (b) siblings. The focus of this entry is on intergenerational solidarity.


Multigenerational families refer to those with multiple generations living during the same period of time, sometimes within the same household (see “Multigenerational Families”). The structure of such families can best be understood with a genogram, a pictorial display of women (circles) and men (squares) in families and how they are connected to one another vertically and/or horizontally through marriage/partnership and/or birth/adoption. The genogram in Fig. 1 shows a multigenerational family with four living generations: G1 great-grandparents, G2 grandparents, G3 parents, and G4 great-grandchildren. Within each generation, there are also multiple partners/spouses and siblings.
Fig. 1

Genogram of a multigenerational family with G1 great-grandparents, G2 grandparents, G3 parents, and G4 great-grandchildren*. *Circles represent female family members and squares represent male family members. Family members of the same color are in the same generation

Figure 1 also shows that within this particular multigenerational family, parent-child relationships (G1-G2, G2-G3, and G3-G4) and grandparent-grandchild relationships (G1-G3 and G2-G4) can be examined across multiple sets of noncontiguous generations while great-grandparent-great-grandchild relationships can be examined with only one set of noncontiguous generations (G1-G4). The quality of intergenerational family relationships will likely differ depending on which set of generations is examined, as age, period, and cohort (or generation) effects shape outcomes. Distinguishing among age, period, and cohort effects is a major methodological dilemma faced by researchers studying aging and the life course, particularly those studying intergenerational solidarity. However, longitudinal data that includes multiple generations of family members experiencing the same life transitions during different historical periods can be used to begin to tease apart some of these complex effects.

Dramatic changes in family structure and demography that have occurred within the last half century (see “Kinship Networks”) highlight the need to study intergenerational family relationships over time. For example, with changes in family structure, generations (e.g., parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, great-grandparents and great-grandchildren) may live in the same household yet may or may not be biologically or legally related to one another through marriage or adoption. Further, demographic changes like longer life expectancy mean that great-grandparents and great-grandchildren (and even great-great-grandparents and great-great-grandchildren) have more shared time together with which to form relationships compared to previous centuries. Changes in family structure and demography have made family relationships more complex than in the past, which in turn, has necessitated more complex conceptualization, measurement, and statistical analyses of family members’ feelings and behaviors toward one another. As will be discussed below, the concept of intergenerational solidarity has evolved to accommodate these new developments.

Over the last 50 years, the intergenerational solidarity paradigm has guided much of the research on intergenerational family relationships. The intergenerational solidarity model refers to six dimensions along which the quality of family relationships can be evaluated (Bengtson and Roberts 1991). These dimensions, shown on Table 1, originate from social psychological research on small groups and families.
Table 1

Dimensions of the intergenerational solidarity model



1. Affectual solidarity

Emotional closeness or the positive feelings family members express for one another

2. Functional solidarity

Help and support, both emotional and instrumental, that family members exchange

3. Structural solidarity

Geographic proximity, including coresidence, between family members that affect opportunities for interaction

4. Consensual solidarity

Agreement in opinions, values, and orientations, including religious orientation, between the generations

5. Normative solidarity

Norms and expectations regarding familistic values, and filial and parental expectations

6. Associational solidarity

The frequency of contact between intergenerational family members

7. Conflict

Tension or disagreement, even if not openly expressed, between family members

As the original title of this model implies, it was biased toward finding positivity in intergenerational family relations. In contrast, another contemporaneous school of thought focused on the tensions and conflict that pulled families apart (Pillemer and Suitor 1992). Subsequently, family scholars began to recognize that intergenerational family relations could be more accurately depicted as incorporating both solidarity and conflict. This third theoretical approach, based in social psychology, suggested that family members could simultaneously hold positive and negative sentiments for one another, a duality of feelings called ambivalence (Luescher and Pillemer 1998). Proponents of the intergenerational solidarity model argued that the social psychological concept of ambivalence could be accounted for by adding a seventh dimension: conflict.

Key Research Findings

The Evolution of the Intergenerational Solidarity-Conflict-Ambivalence Model

With conflict added to the model, it was possible to detect negativity in family relationships. Further, the addition of this seventh dimension allowed researchers to compare family members’ solidarity and conflict in order to measure emergent constructs such as ambivalence or mixed feelings. For example, family members who simultaneously reported high levels of affection and high levels of conflict would be classified as having feelings of ambivalence. On the other hand, family members who reported high levels of affection and low levels of conflict (or vice versa), or low levels of both affection and conflict would not be classified as having feelings of ambivalence.

As this area of research developed, additional researchers (Connidis 2015) argued that in addition to social psychological feelings of ambivalence, structural forms of ambivalence are also important to examine. Structural forms of ambivalence exist when family members are in positions of conflict and must choose between equally important responsibilities – such as taking care of small children versus frail parents. Research suggests that women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community are more likely to face structural forms of ambivalence than their counterparts.

Because the intergenerational solidarity model incorporates six positive dimensions, it is possible to cross each of them with conflict to assess various forms of ambivalence, including structural ambivalence. Researchers (Bengtson et al. 2002; Giarrusso et al. 2005; Lendon et al. 2014; Lendon 2017) have demonstrated empirically that the concept of ambivalence is embedded within the intergenerational solidarity-conflict model. With these conceptual advances, a more appropriate title for this evolving theoretical approach would be the intergenerational solidarity-conflict-ambivalence model.

Complex Data Sets Yield Multiple Perspectives on the Family

In the past, research on intergenerational family relationships and family dynamics (see “Intergenerational Family Dynamics and Relationships”) relied primarily on reports from one family member. For example, when examining parent-child relationships, researchers would rely solely on the parent’s perspective even if the child was an adult. Further, interviews with the parent were primarily conducted with the mother and asked about the family as a whole rather than collecting data about individual children. This methodological flaw was based on an incorrect assumption that a mother had the same relationship with each child (Mother→Children). Consequently, early research on parenting and grandparenting was based mainly on (often female) parents’ and grandparents’ views of the relationship with their children (P→C) and grandchildren (GP→GC) as a whole, or on only one focal child (see “Parenting and Grandparenting”). It was only later that adult children’s and grandchildren’s views of their older parents (C→P) and grandparents (GC→GC) were incorporated into data collection and research.

As a result, breakthroughs in the conceptualization of the intergenerational solidarity model had to await more complex data sets containing multiple perspectives within the family. Considerable research on intergenerational relationships emanated from three main studies:
  1. (a)

    The Longitudinal Study of Generations (LSOG): Intergenerational-stake phenomenon

    The LSOG (Bengtson et al. 1995) allowed an examination of reciprocal perspectives of older parents and adult children (P↔C), as well as grandparents and adult grandchildren (GP↔GC). This reciprocal data revealed that older generations report greater affection for younger generations than the reverse, possibly because they have a greater stake in the relationship. This finding, called the intergenerational-stake phenomenon (Giarrusso et al. 2005), has been replicated and extended by other researchers (Birditt et al. 2015; Crosnoe and Elder 2002; Gilligan et al. 2015) (also see “Intergenerational Stake” and “Developmental Stake Hypothesis”).

  2. (b)

    The Within Family Differences Study (WFDS): Parents have favorites

    The WFDS (Suitor and Pillemer 2006) allowed researchers to look at the relationship of mothers and fathers to each of the mother’s children (e.g., M→C1, M→C2, M→C3, M→C4, etc.). Contrary to social norms, this research uncovered the surprising finding that mothers and fathers favor some of their children over others (Suitor and Pillemer 2007, 2013; Suitor et al. 2007a, b).

  3. (c)

    The Family Exchanges Study (FES): Between-family versus within-family differences approaches

    The FES data set allowed researchers to examine when and why baby boomers would provide help and support to their adult children versus their older parents (Fingerman and Birditt 2011). Comparing data from the LSOG, WFDS, and the FES also enabled researchers to not only compare between different families (i.e., between-family differences) but also to compare family members within a family (i.e., within-family differences) and to assess the advantages of each of these approaches (Fingerman et al. 2012; Suitor et al. 2018).


The Model Applies Across Nations and Cultures

The intergenerational solidarity model has proven to be a very fruitful theoretical framework for understanding intergenerational relationships across nations and cultures. Over the past four decades, the model’s concepts and measures have been used in research in a variety of international settings. For example, Karpinska and Dykstra (2019) investigated how Polish migrants in the Netherlands maintain their intergenerational ties with their aging parents who remained in Poland (see “Intergenerational Migration”). Baykara-Krumme and Fokkema (2019) looked at the impact of migration on intergenerational solidarity types and found that migrant groups differed from one another in their relationships with their older parents. Dryjanska and Zlotnick (2018) found that migrants who experienced high levels of intergenerational solidarity across borders were more likely than their counterparts to overcome migration-related stress.

Examples of Application

The Changing Pattern of Intergenerational Coresidence in the United States

The intergenerational solidarity model has been applied to older parent-adult child, grandparent-grandchild, and great-grandparent-great-grandchild relations. However, because this research is too voluminous, only one example of the application of this model is reported below.

One strand of research on parent-adult child relationships garnering increased attention has been the shift in intergenerational coresidence among older parents and their adult children. Although coresidence is a form of structural solidarity, it creates the opportunity for other forms of solidarity to be exchanged. Historically, coresidence was a strategy for meeting the disability needs of aging parents. More recently, as the balance of resources between elders and younger generations has shifted, adult children are more likely to be assisted by intergenerational coresidence (see “Domestic Violence”).

Van den Berg et al. (2019) examined the processes of leaving and returning home and how these life course transitions were linked. Over the last several decades, the transition to adulthood has become more protracted and complex. Often young adults leave home early only to later return, sometimes referred to as boomerang children. Returning home after leaving is common: an estimated 19% of young adults in Germany and 40% of young adults in the United States return home. Van den berg et al. (2019) identify several reasons why adult children return to the parental home: the experiencing of declines in life and health satisfaction; becoming unemployed; and separating from a partner. Returning home can also reflect a good relationship with parents. Alternatively, returning home may be seen as a sign of failure and could negatively affect well-being and relationships.

Huo et al. (2019) reported that relations between adult children and parents usually involve frequent support exchanges. Parents assist children even after children become middle aged, especially when children experience life problems. Huo et al. expand upon existing research by focusing on everyday support exchanges between parents and adult children, including emotional support such as listening to concerns or providing comfort; practical help (such as doing chores or providing transportation and advice); and financial help.

In their study of parent-adult child coresidence, Kahn et al. (2013) used data from the US Census and the American Community Survey (ACS) to examine the changing aspects of intergeneration coresidence and financial support in the United States over the past five decades – a period of dramatic social, economic, and demographic changes. They focused on the residential choices of both parents and their adult children to provide insight as to how the needs of different generations influence their joint living arrangements. In this research, the older adult was considered to be coresiding if s/he lived in a household with a younger generation family member, typically an adult child, who was at least age 25. In a subsequent study, Goldscheider et al. (2019) found that in 1960, most older adults living with their adult children were financially dependent, but by 2015 adult children were much more likely to be financially dependent on their parents.

In an analysis of parental coresidence with adult children, Davis et al. (2018) suggested that societal and economic trends are likely to influence not only the incidence of intergenerational coresidence but also norms about intergenerational coresidence. Because living with adult children has become more common since the start of the Great Recession, the United States may be experiencing a shift in norms and decreased stigma related to intergenerational coresidence.

This application of the intergenerational solidarity-conflict-ambivalence model on coresidence among older parents and adult children demonstrates how the historical period during which adult children come of age influences the meaning of parent-child coresidence and the ways in which help and support are exchanged between generations. This research also shows the interdependence of various dimensions of intergenerational solidarity because coresidence, a form of structural solidarity, leads to associational solidarity and functional solidarity. Finally, the examples demonstrate the need for long-term longitudinal research designs that include multiple generations in order to understand age, period, and cohort (generation) effects.


Although the intergenerational solidarity-conflict-ambivalence model has been widely used, its application to the family relationships of those in the LGBT community has been limited (Reczek 2014). Future research should provide a more thorough understanding of the intergenerational relationships of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender children and their parents and grandparents.


Intergenerational solidarity refers to a variety of dimensions along which the quality of family relationships can be examined “up” and “down” the generational chain (as opposed to lateral relationships between or among those within the same generation).

Initial research primarily focused on positive aspects of family relationships; however, later research included the examination of negative aspects, such as conflict, as well as the simultaneous consideration of positive and negative aspects of family relationship quality. This latter research underscored the existence of ambivalence – both perceived and structural – in intergenerational family relationships and demonstrated that “intergenerational solidarity-conflict” was a more appropriate and accurate term for describing family relationships.

Further, demographic changes in the structure of families has required the examination of step and ex-step relations as well as fictive kin. Increasingly sophisticated research designs made it possible to look at multiple family members’ perspectives about the quality of family relationships (including reciprocal perspectives between dyads, among members of triads, and even whole families) as well as how family relationship quality may change or remain stable across the life course. Additional advances in statistical techniques allowed researchers to begin to model causal order of the dimensions of intergenerational solidarity, conflict, and ambivalence, as well as to examine how dimensions of intergenerational solidarity, conflict, and ambivalence fit together to create family typologies. Thus, the intergenerational solidarity paradigm has not been static: it has been modified to reflect innovations in theory, methods, and statistical techniques.

Finally, the intergenerational solidarity-conflict-ambivalence model has been used to study family relationships around the world. Research has revealed how the global economy might influence intergenerational family migration and transnational intergenerational family relationships. This work suggests that the model is relevant across multiple nations and cultural groups.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyCalifornia State University-Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Christine A. Mair
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Sociology and AnthropologyUniversity of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)BaltimoreUSA