Generational Transfers, Happiness and Conflicts in Finland



Paper presented at  European Science Foundation conference


Vadstena 9-13-6-2008

J. P. Roos, Elina Haavio-Mannila

Departments of Social Policy and Sociology, University of Helsinki







The article is based on a research project on the transfers of material, practical and moral assistance between family generations, in which the pivot generation is that of the Finnish Baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1950). We have conducted a survey on the Finnish baby boomers, their children and their (surviving) parents with altogether around 3000 respondents in three generations. The survey covers various forms of assistance between all relatives and friends as well as important life history events and values relative to family relationships. We have also conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with a smaller sample among those who have agreed to be interviewed in person. A part of the questionnaire is compatible with the European SHARE project data thus enabling us to compare Finnish data with many European countries.


The results show that Finns help mostly their own children, especially financially. In practical matters they help and receive help also from  friends, especially the younger people. Finns do not see any obligation to help their children, but do help in practice more often than the Southern European families.


In this paper, we look at the relationship of happiness, understood as positive life events, and helping, both by gender and education. We also  study family assistance cultures, i.e. how families vary in the intensity of help. In our data, we have both families who are in daily contact and who always help, even when not asked, and families whose contacts are minimal and helping takes place only in extreme emergency. There are also different combinations of financial, practical and moral assistance. Also mutuality varies: in some cases help is mostly unidirectional, in other cases it is very much reciprocal.


We shall also look for some causal explanations for altruism, reciprocity or non-assistance. For instance, how much families receive social welfare, people’s health, educational and income level, their family structure, contacts and conflicts with relatives as well as gender relations.





The baby boomers are a culturally varying phenomenon: in the United States it is understood in a very broad sense, depicting people born during roughly 20 years after the war.  The original meaning for the baby boomer concept is simply the numerous birth cohorts after the war:  this increase took place differently in different countries. In Finland the increase in birth rates was very marked: it started immediately (i.e. nine months) after the end of the Finnish War against Soviet Union in 1944 and the return of the soldiers from the front and it continued until the early 1950’s. The decline of the birth rate was very gradual which means that the cutting point could be equally well 1949 or 1955. In this paper, the operational definition of baby boomers is people born between 1945 and 1950, both years included.


These baby boomers reached adulthood in late 60’s and 70’s. Their children were largely born during the 1970’s (they had far less children than their parents, so that birth rates were roughly halved from one generation to the next) and now they are reaching retirement age. They have experienced an extremely rapid and dramatic transformation of the Finnish society from a rather backward agricultural and poor country to a technologically developed welfare state which still in the 60’s and 70’s was producing paper, pulp and metal industry products for the Soviet Union but, after experiencing a terrible depression from 1990 to 1994, rose from the ashes and is now best known from its IT industry and especially Nokia and its mobile phones. Finland is now one of the world’s richest countries which does not have any other resources to boast about than its own population and the social system based on trust, equality and a constitutionally guaranteed social security (every Finnish citizen is guaranteed a sufficient livelihood in the new constitution).


In this paper we ask the question: considering the fact that the baby boomers have experienced a dramatic improvement in their socio-economic situation and security, what happens to the intergenerational relationships as expressed in mutual assistance, and how does this affect the quality of life of the people? We present four hypotheses about the connections between intergenerational help and quality of life: 


The first hypothesis is the extreme individualisation hypothesis: because there is no direct dependence between adult members of the two generations they do not give any help to each other. And their quality of life is roughly independent from the quality of life of their children. The second one is the social capital hypothesis: the more the generations are interconnected and give help to each other, the higher life quality they enjoy. The third hypothesis is the welfare state hypothesis:  from the existence of a comprehensive social security in the Nordic welfare state, one could infer that there is no more need for helping family members, but instead just creating one’s own networks. In other words, people are closer to friends than to relatives and there is no more need for the family to guarantee the livelihood or studies of their offspring. This may be connected with the individualisation hypothesis: the welfare state makes individual choices possible.  In the Finnish case, this is true in the sense that even university education is free for everybody and the state even guarantees a small monthly stipend to all students, in addition to credit support. There is no need for the parents to start saving for university when a child is born.  Their happiness depends fundamentally on their social relationships outside the family. The fourth alternative is the evolutionary hypothesis: the closer knit and more extensive the family the better is the quality of the life of the members of this family. 


This is the framework for the discussion of this paper. We try to answer these questions with the help of our data.



The basic concepts


Our fundamental perspective is that of evolutionary sociology, which means that we are inspired both by evolutionary psychology and Edward Westermarck, a Finnish classic of sociology, who was also the first professor of sociology at the London School of Economics (see Roos 2008).  To put it concisely, we start from the assumption that family members are motivated to help each other because they are family, not because they follow some cultural and social norms. In modern evolutionary theory, the famous Hamilton rule is a starting point: the cost of helping depends on the genetic relatedness and the benefit received. I.e. non-reciprocal help is given mainly to very close relatives.  But it follows also from Hamilton’s rule that mutually beneficial helping and cooperation are fundamental aspects of human nature (Henrich et al, Boyd-Richerson). Absolute individualism is not a very probable alternative in any society, contrary to what many sociologists believe. And a society is in principle defined by cooperation and helping.


Another fundamental aspect of human nature is happiness. Contrary to many philosophical and sociological conceptions, we believe that happiness is a fundamental adaptation among humans (see Nettle 2005, 163). For a small baby, it is a key to its survival to be happy and positively oriented towards everything in its environment. If a healthy baby is unhappy, it shows it by crying and it always has a reason to be unhappy (but it also learns quickly that it can make things happen by crying…), which means that we have to do something about it. The same goes in principle for adults, although then their happiness is not crucial to their survival. But it increases their reproductive success markedly. Daniel Nettle proposes that there are certain conditions for increased happiness (or attempts to strive for increased happiness): physical and material security, having a mate, having a high social status etc.  What is important to note is that regardless of this striving for happiness, the actual feeling of happiness is very much independent of social or economic achievements. Our evolutionary history “deceives” us into believing that our happiness will increase when we “succeed”, but this is not the case. (Nettle 152) According to estimates presented by Nettle marital status accounts for about 6% of happiness, social status for 4% whereas personality factors (mainly neuroticism and extraversion) account for some 50-60% of the variation (Nettle 111). The most important consequence from this is that we should look at negative changes, i.e. unhappiness, rather than happiness, as we now do.  We should strive to prevent unhappiness, not to reach maximum happiness.


In addition to family status, even other family members can be assumed to contribute to happiness. Also doing good works can be supposed to be positive: “purely” altruistic acts make you feel good (This is one of the advantages of giving blood, for instance, as the first author can personally assure, but see also Tittmus)


So we are assuming here that giving makes people happy. Whether receiving help makes the recipient also happy is more questionable but an interesting research question. Also the inverse relationship is possible: happiness probably makes us more willing to help others. We cannot make definite causal conclusions, but we can try to see which models fit the data better. The next steps in our research will be international comparisons and use of qualitative data to check more closely the possible causal connections as experienced by the people.



Presentation of the study







One of the goals of this study is to compare informal practical and financial helping patterns of a nationally representative sample of Finnish baby boomers, their adult children, and their parents. Baby boomers were born in 1945-50 and the mean year of their birth is 1947 and their age in 2007 thus 60 years (N=1115). Their children were born in 1962-1988 and the mean year of their birth is 1975 and their age in 2007 thus 32 years (N=1435). The parents were personally interviewed in spring 2008 but we are not using their responses here.


The survey data was collected by Statistics Finland via mailed questionnaires to national samples of baby boomers and their children. Three reminders were sent to the sample. The response rate for the baby boomers was 56 percent and for their children 42 percent. Women answered more actively than men and young men were most passive in replying to our questions.


Measurement of the concepts





As there were no direct questions related to happiness in the questionnaires, we have only indirect and correlated measures of happiness and life satisfaction which can be used. But we did include open questions about positive and negative events in life; we asked them to mention three most important of both kinds. Coding these questions allowed us to construct a scale of important happiness related events, small happiness events and similarly big misery producing and small misery producing events. In such a way we do have a variable on happiness which has a normal distribution. The ordinary questions of happiness and life satisfaction tend to produce very high values: most people report being at least moderately happy. And our indicator of happiness seems to work.


The questions posed were the following: “When you think of your life, which life events have had most influence on you? Mention separately positive and negative events and turning points. At most three events could be mentioned.”


We coded the answers in the following way:

  • Important positive events (great happiness, such as birth of children, marriages, major examinations)
  • Small positive events (small happiness, such as getting a new job, celebrating something, having grandchildren)
  • Neutral or no events


  • Important negative events (great misery, such as major illnesses, deaths, divorce etc)
  • Small negative events (small misery, such as losing a job, failing an exam etc)
  • And neutral or no events at all.



Note that the same events could be classified either as negative or positive, depending on whether the respondent classified them as negative or positive. E.g. a major illness or divorce could be classified as negative or positive but not both for same respondents.


We then created two happiness variables:


·        A sum variable of positive events: 2 for great happiness, 1 for small happiness and 0 for neutral events or no remark.

·        A sum variable for negative events: 2 for great misery, 1 for small misery, 0 for neutral events or no remark.


Finally we created a global happiness variable in which the positive events offset the negative events. Thus, if somebody had mentioned three great happiness events and three small misery events, his or her final happiness value was 6-3 = 3.


The values of this variable could therefore go from +6 to -6 but in practice they range from +6 to -5. The average for baby boomers is 1.17 and for their children 2.10. Baby boomers are thus clearly less happy than their children ( i.e. have experienced on balance less positive than negative events in their life).


Practical help


Baby boomers and their children were asked what kind of unpaid practical help they had given and received during the last 12 months from their relatives and friends who were not living in the same household with them. In the questionnaire, there were 12 alternatives and respondents could choose several of them. The tasks were afterwards divided into three groups based partly on the gendered division of labour:




·        Help with household chores e.g. with making food, cleaning, shopping, gardening

·        Help with childcare

·        Help with caring pets

·        Personal care or help e.g. help with washing, eating and dressing

 Transportation and repairs

  • Help with home repairs
  • Help with transportation
  • Help with repairs and care of car, domestic appliances etc.

Modern help

  • Help concerning vacation
  • Help with paperwork such as filling forms, settling financial or legal matters

·        Help with technical appliances e.g. help or assistance using mobile phone, computer, Internet or digital set-top box

·        Other kind of help which is related to the helper’s professional skills

  • Other help


The lists of givers and recipients of help presented in the questionnaire varied a little in different connections, but most of them included the following categories of people: Mother, father, father-in-law, father-in-law, son, daughter, sister, brother, grandparent, grandchild, some other relative, friend, co-worker, and organisation.


Giving and receiving money


The next set of questions was related to informal financial or monetary support of even a small amount (less than 250 euro as in the SHARE study), given to and received from adults living outside the household in the last 12 months. By financial assistance we mean giving money, or covering specific types of costs such as schooling, travel, or purchases, and also loans but not inheritances. There was no expectation of returning the monetary support. Thus the monetary support can also be named as a gift.


A  problem in comparing the replies of baby boomers and their children is that forms of help and relationships to providers and recipients of help were studied by presenting different lists in different questions. In many instances parents and children were examined separately and not included in the response alternative lists of other relatives.  The process of making the lists comparable was rather demanding.


Public assistance was measured by listing following forms of assistance: different unemployment benefits, illness compensation, children’s allowance, old age pension, family pension, housing subsidy, and maintenance subsidy (check translation).


Social background


As sociologists, we naturally want to see how happiness and helping are related to social background. Eight indicators were selected as explaining variables:


·        Gender: man or woman

·        Size of kin and friendship network: sum of 18 categories of relatives and other nearby people listed in the questionnaire. In the text, the word kin is often used even though the list includes, in addition to relatives also friends, neighbours and co-workers .

·        Contacts with kin: sum of relatives with weekly contacts (parents, parents-in-law, children, and siblings).

·        Conflicts with kin and friends: sum of disagreements with 15 kinds of people.

·        Household composition: The respondent lives alone, with children as a single parent, with spouse or cohabitant without children, or with spouse or cohabitant and children.

·        Illness: Reports a long-term health problem, illness or constant handicap.

·        Income: Monthly income after taxes in 2007 according to own information.

·        Education: Official educational register data obtained from Statistics Finland. The classification is: no further education after basic school, lower, middle and higher occupational examination and university.


In the present analysis we concentrate on the providing of practical and financial help among the baby boomers. Receiving and giving help as reported by their adult children is only sporadically included in order to tie the results to a wider context.


Most percentages are calculated from the whole sample to give an overview of the situation. Conflicts are examined only for people having the respective relative or friend. Disagreements are included in the correlation table 5 but not in the path analyses which include all respondents.




Our first hypothesis about individualisation of generations does not get strong support from our data. Before going to the focus of our article – connection between intergenerational helping and quality of life – we show two examples on parents’ influence on their children’s economic well-being.


The first example does not support the individualisation hypothesis. In our data, the economic quality of life of adult children of baby boomers is strongly associated with the economic situation of their grandparents and parents. The second example supports the individualisation thesis. In Finland, the economic situation of adult children of the baby boomers does not depend on the education of parents. In a welfare state, the educational policies have overcome the negative effects of unfavourable social background. This applies at least to the generation of baby boomers.


Contrary to the individualisation hypothesis, Finnish generations often help each other in practical chores. As many as 83 percent of the baby boomers and 86 percent of their children has given at least some kind of practical support to their children, other relatives and friends during the last 12 months (Table 1). The structure of the questionnaire prevents us from separating kin and friends here.



Table 1. Percentages baby boomers and their children who have given practical help to adult kin and friends, who are not living in the same household, in last 12 months



Kind of practical help

Baby boomers

Their adult children 1)

Help with household chores e.g. with making food, cleaning, shopping, gardening



Help with home repairs



Help with transportation



Help with car repairs, domestic appliances’ etc.



Help concerning vacation



Help with paperwork such as filling forms, settling financial or legal matters

Not asked


Help with technical appliances e.g. help or assistance using mobile phone, computer, Internet or digital set-top box

Not asked


Help with childcare



Help with caring pets



Personal care or help e.g. help with washing, eating and dressing

Not asked


Other kind of help which is related to the helper’s professional skills



Total givers of practical help







1) Reports by children.



Giving financial support is somewhat less common than giving practical help. Of the baby boomers 61 percent have given money to their nearest (Table 2). Adult children were the overwhelmingly largest group (53%). The result is confirmed by their children of whom 48 percent reported that they had received money from their parents. In addition, 14 percent of adult children has got monetary gifts from their parents-in-law.


The practical help between generations is reciprocal whereas financial support flows mainly from parents to children. As was shown above, adult children commonly help their parents in practical matters but they very seldom support them financially. Only six percent reports financial help to parents and even less, two percent of baby boomers admits having received monetary support from their children.


Table 2. Percentages of baby boomers and their children who have given and received financial support to or from different categories of people in the last 12 months


Givers and recipients of financial support




1)  Reports by children.


The purposes for the financial gifts were different in intergenerational than other monetary help (Table 3). Most respondents reported that they mostly gave and received financial support to cover basic needs. Baby boomers differ from the others in having given their children money often for housing, travelling and other reasons, too.

Table 3. Purpose(s) for money given and received by baby boomers and their children who have given and received money, percent


Purpose of financial support

Baby boomers who have given money to



who have given money to

Baby boomers who have received money from

Children of baby boomers who have received money from 


their adult children

others 1)

so somebody 2)

Ha    their adult children

and others

others than parents


To meet the basic needs such as food, clothing and housing
















To buy, furnish or rent etc. a house or apartment









To help with other large expenditure







To help with costs of a journey







Other reason







No specific reason








1) Parents, parents-in-law, siblings, other relatives, friends and co-workers.

2) Parents, parents-in-law, children, grandparents, siblings, other relatives, friends and co-workers.


The reports about receiving practical help given by parents and children are fairly consistent. While 53 percent of baby boomers tell that they have helped their adult children in practical chores, a close proportion, 60 percent of their children report that they have helped their parents (Table 4).


Table 4. Percentages of adults living outside the household to whom baby boomers and their children have given practical help in the last 12 months



Recipient of practical help

Baby boomers

Their adult children 1)

Recipient of practical help

Baby boomers

Their adult children 1)


1) Reports by children.


Mothers have assisted their children somewhat more often (55%) than fathers (44%). The gender difference may be partly due to the fact that the mothers of 99 percent of the fathers of the children of baby boomers were alive, of their fathers 92 percent.


In addition to the common helping of their parents and parents-in-law, quite many, about one fourth, of the children of baby boomers had given practical help to their sisters and brothers. Grandparents had been helped less often (14%) in spite of the fact that 55 percent have parents alive. Very few children of baby boomers have adult children but almost all of these reported practical help from their parents. One fifth of children of baby boomers told about giving practical help to other relatives and the same proportion to co-workers. The children of baby boomers had helped their friends much more commonly (53%) than their parents had done (26%). In the early adulthood of children of baby boomers the friendship and co-worker circles seem to be more important in helping culture than in baby boomers’ early old age.  


Predictors of giving and receiving help


Next we shall investigate the social background of practical and financial helpers and recipients of help by presenting correlations between kind of help and some indicators of social background.


Gender explains only to some degree the giving and receiving of informal help. Of women 86 percent and of men 81 percent has given some practical or financial help to somebody during the last 12 months. Somewhat more women, 44 percent, than men, 36 percent have received help in the same period. Gender differences in giving either practical or financial help are equally small. Of women 79 percent and of men 73 percent has given practical help and 55 and 52 percent, respectively, financial help. In all cases the proportions are a little higher for women than men.


However, men’s and women’s helping patterns differ somewhat from each other. Men’s helping patterns include much more commonly repair and maintenance of house and machines, e.g. car, and transportation. Women’s helping consists also statistically significantly more often of housework: household chores, childcare, personal care, and care of pet animals, help for holiday arrangements, use of own special skills and other help are gender neutral support forms. 


Large  kin network – social capital – correlates with almost all kinds of men’s helping behaviour: the more kinds of  relatives there are alive, the greater is the likelihood that men participate in practical and financial helping (Table 5). Among women, only giving practical and financial help is connected to size of kin network. Weekly contacts with kin correlate with giving practical help among both genders. Men with frequent kin contacts are more likely than other men to give financial help. Giving and receiving help correlates negatively with conflicts between relatives.


Table 5. Correlations between giving and receiving practical and financial help and social background            



Large kin



Contacts with kin weekly

 Lives with others





Good health

Monthly income after taxes




Gave practical help, number of recipients







– .087




– .233***

Number of types of practical help given










– .072






– .166*

Amount of financial help given, euro in 12 months












Gave practical help, number of recipients










– .043







Number of types of practical help given










– .029






– .078


1)       Only people who have the respective relatives.



Living with other people is positively connected to help given by men and slightly negatively to help given by women. Single women are very active in practical helping (Table 6).


Table 6. Practical and financial help given and received according to family type. Means of sum scales.


Family type

Gave practical help, number of recipients * 100


Number of types of practical help given * 100

Received practical help, number of givers * 100

Gave financial help, number of recipients * 100

Amount of financial help given, euro in 12 months

Received financial help, number of givers * 100



People with economic and cultural capital – high income and education – help their relatives and friends more than those with poorer resources. Illness increases the likelihood of receiving financial support. People reporting many happy turning points in their life seem to be generous in giving both practical and monetary help to their nearest.


Giving practical and financial help are connected to each other, and also receiving both kinds of help are linked (Table 7). Giving and receiving practical help are reciprocal but there is no relationship between giving and receiving financial help. Receiving public assistance does not correlate with helping or happiness. But public assistance is, nevertheless, related to informal private help according to factor analysis which reveals the following two helping patterns.


Table 7. Correlations between giving and receiving help and happiness



Gave practical help

Gave financial help


practical help

Received financial help


Gave practical help





Gave financial help





Received practical help





Received financial help





Received public assistance













Table 8. Factor loadings of two dimensions of giving and receiving help



Factor 1

Factor 2

Gave practical help


– 1)

Received practical help



Gave financial help



Received money as gift or loan


Got public assistance






1) Loadings less than .30 are omitted.


1. Reciprocal practical help and giving financial help. We name the factor as reciprocal generosity.

 2. Receiving financial help from kin and friends and also public assistance but not giving informal help. This factor is called one-sided reception of help. 


These two factors explain 52 percent of the variation of the five variables included in the model.


As an example of the relevance of the two factors in everyday life we will next show how different types of families score on these two dimensions of helping. Married couples with children are strong spearheads of reciprocal generosity  (Figure 1). They seldom remain one-sided recipients of help. Spouses without children at home occupy a  middle position on both factors. Single parents typically represent one-sided reception of help. They score low on reciprocal generosity. Many people living alone are also one-sided help-receivers but on the reciprocal generosity dimension they score in the middle.  

Family type

Married or cohabiting

with children

Married or cohabiting

without children

Single parent

Lives alone

Mean factor score

















One-sided reception

of help



Figure 1. Dimensions of giving and getting help by family type


The following path analyses (Figures 2 and 3) present which social and family variables predict practical and financial help, both given and received when the influence of variables on the left side of each variable is controlled.

Giving financial help is explained by high income and education, large kin network and happiness. Receiving financial help is related to illness, living alone but having many relatives, and unhappiness. Giving practical help to relatives is connected to having a large kin network, frequent contacts with kin, living alone and receiving practical help (practical helping is often mutual). Receiving practical help is explained by female gender, high education, and – in the same way as receiving financial help –  illness, large kinship network and living alone.


Happiness does not explain practical help according to the path analysis. However, as the correlations in Table 5 show, happy men (but not women) are giving and receiving practical help more often than unhappy men. The impact of happiness on practical help disappears when education, size of kin network and living with other people – which directly increase helping – are adjusted for. But there is a positive connection, anyway, as the correlations show: happy men help and get help in practical chores more than unhappy men.




In this  paper, we have only succeeded in scratching the surface of happiness and help between generations. Our main question can, however, be answered in the affirmative: happiness is related to helping, both in obvious and not so obvious ways. The results are pretty clear: happy people are more willing to help relatives than unhappy people, both practically and financially.


It seems quite certain that being happy makes people help more, especially their relatives. We cannot say whether helping makes people happier or whether being happier produces more help (this is also plausible!). It is probably safe to say that the relationship is mutual. We feel better when we help, and we help when we feel good.  In the receiving end, the situation is more complicated.


To receive help is not so clearly related with happiness. This has many possible explanations. A person who gets help, may need it precisely because she or he is unhappy. A happy person needs no help (although there is the obvious connection between willingness to help and the niceness of the person). According to our results, getting financial help is associated with unhappiness but there is no connection between receiving practical help and happiness when the influence of the other background variables is controlled.


The more family members and relatives people have and the more they have contacts and the less conflicts with them, the more there is reciprocal helping. The better educated and wealthy people help more, both financially and practically. We have also shown that there are important gender differences between helping and happiness. Thus, for men helping is related to happiness more than for women. Men help only if they are also part of a network of family members, while women are more prepared to help even when they are unhappy and do not have a family.



Figures 2 and 3 here

High educat-ion .001

R2 .036

Gave financial help

R2 .137

Lives with others R2 .116


R2 .107

Large kin

R2 .003

High income

R2 .036


R2 .122

R2 .107





Female gender






Received  financial help R2 .027






Figure 2. Predictors of giving and receiving financial help. Standardized regression coefficients beta


Long-term illness

R2 .000


Contacts with kin R2 .014








High education

R2 .036

Gave practical help

R2 .208

Lives with others R2 .116


R2 .107

Large kin

R2 .003

High income

R2 .036


R2 .124

R2 .107





Female gender






Received practical help R2 .063







Figure 3. Predictors of giving and receiving practical help. Standardized regression coeffifients beta.

Contacts with kin R2 .014


Long-term illness .000