Research plan 2011-2015


1. Research Plan: Baby Boomers’ Generational Transmissions in Finland, second round

(Gentrans 2) 2011-2015

J P Roos, Professor, Project Director

Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki and The Population Research Institute


Applied period: 48 months.

2. Background to the Gentrans 2 project

The present research plan presents the second round of the Baby Boomers’ Generational Transmissions in Finland (Gentrans) project. Gentrans studies generational transfers and life situations of the Finnish “baby boomers”, defined as the age cohort between 1945 and 1950, and their adult children. The first round was carried out in 2005-09 and the second round is planned to start in 2011, both including survey and register data as well as individual in-depth interviews.

The baby boomers in Finland and elsewhere in Europe represent a subject of intense public policy and academic interest. Most of the current challenges in Finland – including the pension crisis, the shortage of new employees, the growing need for social services and health care, the worsening of the demographic dependency ratio and the gender inequalities in care work – are strongly affected by the behavior of baby boomers.

In Finland, the postwar rise in fertility was stronger but the time period shorter than in most other countries. Finnish baby boomers also differ in other aspects, due the overlap between baby boomer’s life course and the country’s transition from agrarian to a modern service society (Karisto 2005). So far, the welfare state has been able to expand in size and scope much due to the consistent growth of the working-age population since the 1950s. Demographic ageing turns this situation around and dependency ratios decline as the proportion of the working population shrinks. Finland is now at the threshold of this demographic divide, and the baby boomers are among the main agents affecting its social expression. According to various international and national population scenarios, ageing is above all a European phenomenon, and in Europe it is most rapid in Finland (Kautto 2004). This makes Finland an extremely interesting setting for our panel research project. The first Gentrans (Gentrans 1) project was funded by Academy of Finland during 2005–2009 and the study was planned to be repeated several times. It is possible to follow the baby boomers from the so-called young old age (Komp 2010) to late old age, as well as follow their children from early adulthood to old age. In the Gentrans 1 research plan we proposed that the study will survey the same subjects during several decades in five year periods (2007, 2012, 2017, 2022 and so on).

While the Academy of Finland has obviously not made any binding commitments, we believe that part of the appeal of the original project was its longitudinal dimension. Longitudinal studies have become an increasingly popular tool for studying social change, especially in projects where causal relationships and policy-relevant research have high priority. In addition, contemporary policy research typically relies on international comparisons. Recent studies on e.g. social equity, gender equality and school performance show Finland emerging as a valuable object of comparison, belonging to the world leaders in many aspects of well-being and socio-economic performance (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009, Esping-Andersen 2009, studies based on the PISA student-level achievement data base, etc.). It is thus highly important that Finland produces data which can be used for comparative purposes. We believe that Finland should definitely aim to participate in the next SHARE wave. Therefore the second round of Gentrans offers points of comparison with SHARE and simultaneously tries to create a joint national effort to catch the train from the next SHARE station.

Results from Gentrans 1 showed that baby boomers typically had a better and more stable socioeconomic situation than did their adult children. However, they do not choose to focus on individual consumption and services, as some have argued, but devote much time and resources to others, especially to kin. They help a wide range of relatives but the net flow of assistance and especially financial assistance goes to direct descendants. Mostly, the picture appeared fairly rosy.

Baby boomers, their adult children and parents usually receive help when they ask for it and were satisfied with the support received. Resources are typically allocated to those members of the younger generation perceived to be most in need of them and who also fit that criteria with objective measures (e.g. being unemployed or ill). Few respondents perceive assisting aged relatives to be a duty for family members. Whether or not regarded as an obligation, helping relatives is largely a matter of course. Interestingly, while parents in Finland (and in other Nordic countries) have more negative attitudes towards helping their adult children, they actually help them to a larger extent than do parents in Southern and Central Europe. We also found evidence of consistent if often unacknowledged preferences. For instance, relatives from maternal kin were most likely to help each other and daughters received slightly more help than sons. There is also a risk that generational assistance increases the gap between both economically and socially resourceful families and others.

In the second round of this study, we are especially interested in following the dynamics between generations as the baby boomers now approach old age and retire, while their children may reach a higher socioeconomic position than their parents and also have had more (grand)children. We will be able to assess interactions between transmissions and demographic transitions, such as the effect of helping patterns on retirement and on childbearing behavior. We study major forms of support (practical assistance, financial transfers, mental support, contact frequencies and care) between different family members, more distant kin, and other people. We will also study how the cuts in welfare spending affect generational assistance. Finally, our earlier findings call for more specific studies of particular family relationships such as the interaction between grandparents and their inlaws and between siblings.

Theoretical framework. The Gentrans study is connected to several themes of research, notably, the sociological study of generations and the family including intergenerational transmissions; studies of giving, reciprocity and altruism; and studies on the welfare state and social policy. The project’s theoretical background relies on family sociology and evolutionary theory, which we perceive as being complementary, not in competition or mutually exclusive. We believe that testing and incorporating evolutionary theory is a crucial step towards multidisciplinary, integrated study of human behavior (Boyer 2005; Sanderson 2001; Gintis 2009, see also Danielsbacka and Tanskanen 2010). This crucially includes testing of different hypothesis, not adopting a priori the “right” theoretical/ideological perspective.

We approach the family as a not primarily legal or social construct but a context-sensitive biosocial institution based on kin relationship (see the dispute between Westermarck and Durkheim, Roos 2008; Shackelford and Salmon 2008). The human family is a system extending beyond the nuclear family to comprise at least three generations (Hrdy 1999; Coall and Hertwig 2010). Kin selection theory predicts that the closer the actual kin relationship is (i.e. the closer people have reason to believe they are genetically) the more they will provide altruistic help (Hamilton 1964a&1964b; see also Sarmaja 2003). The lower the degree of relatedness, the more giving is characterized by reciprocity and mutual liking, in the way friends and neighbors typically interact. In most species, there also exists an inherent conflict between parents and offspring (Trivers 1972/2002) Parents are prepared to invest enormously in their children, but not without limits, whereas the children tend to present “endless” demands and monitor for possible preference of other siblings. In humans, kin altruism, parental investment and also parent-child conflict extend to investment in adult children and grandchildren, although the amounts and forms of these investments and conflict have been surprisingly little studied in contemporary societies (Coall and Hertwig 2010).

Our survey questions enable us to study the patterns and justifications of giving, also in relation to matri- and patrilineal kin affiliations and to sex preferences. We can also compare help provided for and received from relatives and friends and between relatives of different degrees of relatedness.

Results from the first round of GENTRANS do follow assumptions from evolutionary theory regarding altruistic helping among kin and friends. Thus baby boomers help their relatives more than their friends, the net flow of help goes in descending kin line, maternal kin provides more help than the paternal one.

In sociology, the hypotheses of modernization and individualization of the family has stressed the emergence of the nuclear family and the ensuing weakening of bonds beyond the nuclear family. Contacts between the members of the extended family and even between parents and adult children were supposed to have weakened, almost to the extent that the concept of intergenerational transmission lost its relevance. Some researchers have assumed that welfare state development has diminished the relevance and meaning of family as a provider of help and care (see Kazepov, 2008; Bengtson 2001). It is true that in a country such as Finland, social networks are formed around singles, couples, and couples with children (Castrén 2000) and periods of the life course spent living alone or with a partner are comparatively long (Haavio-Mannila & Rotkirch 2004).

Consequently, the “crowding out” hypothesis predicts that public assistance and benefits substitute for tasks which formerly belonged to families, and that as a consequence people’s motivation to provide informal assistance would have diminished (Ostrom, 2000).

However, since the 1990’s there is a growing body of sociological research questioning this thesis (Attias-Donfut, Lapierre & Segalen 2002, Attias-Donfut 1995; see also Godard 1992 and Trifiletti et al. 2003). It is clear that the meaning of family and kin may have partly changed but has not necessarily diminished despite the progress of modernization. In fact, in some situations the importance of extended kin may even have increased, due to eg. the increase in life expectancy, health and socio-economic resources in the older generation combined with the increase in marital and socio-economic instability in the younger, child-bearing generation (Bengtson 2001). Thus the counter hypothesis is the “crowding in” hypothesis (see Daatland 2001; Kohli, 1999; Künemund & Rein 1999) which predicts that despite broad public assistance people still help, and especially often their relatives. This is also in line with ultimate evolutionary explanations of altruistic help and parental investment.

The results from the first round of GENTRANS as well the studies which have used data from multinational European SHARE project (e.g. Fokkema et al. 2008; Brandt et al. 2009) give convincing support for the crowding in hypothesis. Empirical studies indicate, for example, that grandparental child care help is very common also in the generous welfare systems (Hank & Buber 2009; Tanskanen et al. 2010). The influence of the type of the welfare state is evident in the intensity of informal assistance. However, comparative studies of upward and downward help within the family in different kinds of welfare states imply that a strong welfare state can enhance the amount of helpers but reduce the intensity of help (Igel et al., 2009; Lingsom, 1997; see also Fokkema et al., 2008; Hank & Buber, 2009).

Indeed, both social policy and cultural values – underlying norms of reciprocity, family obligations, and responsibility – crucially shape intergenerational transfers (e.g. Finch & Mason 1993). Some sociologists call the reciprocity between generations a generational contract (Attias-Donfut & Arber 2000) or equity/inequity between generations (see Kohli 2005). It is important to consider changing attitudes of obligations and responsibility towards relatives, proximate mechanisms such as women’s participation in working life or distance between family members when studying assistance and transmissions between generations.

Thus, the interaction between family systems and the welfare state is the third theoretical nexus in our project. For a lineage of three or even four generations, the welfare state plays a different role; family members have very different positions as donors and recipients. This position affects their everyday life, but it also has consequences for relations between family members and between generations. An analysis of family relationships and reciprocity thus gains from a simultaneous analysis concerning the functioning of the welfare state vis-à-vis different generations. It could also be that the size of the welfare state is less relevant than its structure, ie. the design of transfers, their financing rules and the rules governing provision of services.

Care is in the centre of generational transmissions and in social policies. Today, care of close relatives is being supported (not very generously) by society and competes with professional care. Such intensive care arrangements are increasing and raise sensitive questions. An (adult) child may find it difficult to change diapers and to perform other intimate acts supposed to belong to the professional care of the elderly (handling of excrements is typically the limit between professional caring and care of relatives). Usually, care of elderly parents consists of a combination of kin and socially provided services (Trifiletti et al. 2003). As a result of the feminization the welfare state this means that women take care of the elderly both as family members and as professionals. (Ellingsæter & Leira 2004.)

Combining the family sociology with evolutionary and social policy approaches is crucial when studying intergenerational transmissions. We will consider the sociological effects of baby boomers as a very particular cohort and generation, taking into account more general structures related to noticing genetic proximity, and also changes over time in welfare services.

3. Research aims and objectives

The main research theme concerns changes in Finnish baby boomer’s family relations and helping between 2007 and 2012. The first round of the Gentrans survey was collected in spring 2007 when altogether 32.8 percent of baby boomers in our data received a pension (but only 12.3 were on oldage pension). We plan to renew the survey in spring 2012 when practically all of the respondents are retired, while more of their adult children have become parents. This makes it possible to study interactions between transmissions and demographic transitions, such as the effect of helping patterns on retirement and on childbearing behavior. The first follow-up enables us to test causal relations that single surveys cannot assess. We study major forms of support (practical assistance, financial transfers, mental support, contact frequencies and care) between different family members, more distant kin, and other people. We focus on the following themes and research questions:

Q 1. Transmissions from baby boomers to their children and grandchildren and what has changed since the first round.

a. As most baby boomers will now be retired, we can study the effect of retirement on generational interaction. How are transmissions related to the timing of retirement, maybe also to the need for institutionalized care? Do baby boomers increase or decrease helping when they have left working life behind? How do different ways of helping change?

b. Changes in attitudes. Are baby boomer’s attitudes towards received and given help or responsibilities of the welfare state and family stable or do they change depending more on life phases? Relations between justifications of helping and other factors, especially earlier family events and well-being (happiness, health). How do baby boomers expect their own coming needs to be satisfied/fulfilled when they grow old?

Q 2. Transmissions from adult children to their parents (the baby boomers) and how this has changed between 2007 and 2012. How much practical help and care do adult children provide their parents with now when they are retired? Contrary to the situation five years ago, the socioeconomic status of adult children is now expected to be higher compared to that of the baby boomers and they will have had more children.

a. Is there more reciprocal support between adult children and parents or does the net flow of assistance mostly still go downward in the kin line? Based on results of the first round of Gentrans we predict that the adult children will expect the welfare state to carry most of the responsibility for their parents.

b. Changes in attitudes. As in question 1, we also study attitudes and justifications of helping among adult children.

c. Is there any link between transmissions from kin and non-kin and the childbearing behavior? Some studies predict that large social networks and help received from kin correlate positively with earlier timing and higher numbers of children, but this has not been studied in Finland.

Q 3. Previous results consistently report gendered and kin biases in generational transmissions. However, it is unclear how cultural and social factors affect these broad patterns. We aim to study the following aspects through specific themes that have yet been very little studied in contemporary societies with longitudinal data. The themes are also interesting because unlike grandparenting, they are less regulated by cultural obligations.

a. How do the matrilineal forms of help that dominate in Finland vary with religion, region and social class? Is there evidence of son or daughter and grandson or granddaughter preference and in what family constellations?

b. What are the dynamics of interaction between the baby boomers and their son/daughter in-laws?

c. What kind of sibling contacts and aunt/uncle interactions can be observed and what explains this?

Q 4. Social benefits and informal generational support. Here, we are especially interested in how changes in the position of baby boomers as the receivers of welfare benefits (e.g. many have retired between 2007 and 2012) as well as changes in provided public services have affected transmissions. We test the outcrowding versus incrowding hypotheses and examine how help received from kin and friends is related to changes in the economical or employment situation of the receiver generation and to social polarization or equalization.

Q 5. Helping friends and neighbours. How do changes with retirement for baby boomers, and changes with childbearing for young adults, affect the relations to non-kin? We can now study whether amounts of help and number of receivers are related more to life situation or to individual and maybe also family characteristics that are stable over time and life stages.

4. Data, methods and ethical concerns.

Data. As in the previous round, we link survey answers to individual-level register data and conduct in-depth interviews with a subsample of the survey respondents.

1. Longitudinal survey for baby boomers and their adult children. We shall renew the first round of Gentrans surveys and try to get along as many longitudinal respondents as possible. We repeat two surveys, one for the baby boomers and one for their adult children, through a mail survey. In the first round the total number of interviews was 2550 (1115 baby boomers, 1435 adult children). The questionnaire includes items related to helping and emotional relations between family members and friends, other dependencies, unofficial gifts, loans, guarantees etc. We also investigate taking care of parents and/or children, conflicts and ways of keeping distance etc. (questionnaires from the first round are available in Gentrans home page). The questionnaire is identical to the original one except for reformulations of some parts in order to guarantee comparability with SHARE.

The respondents will be asked for permission to continue the research for several successive steps at five year intervals. Respondents are also aware that questionnaire data is linked to register data. The interviews will be conducted by Statistics Finland. A unique advantage of Statistics Finland is that they can directly connect individual-level survey data with register data, as was done in the first round survey.

2. Life history interviews with selected people participating in the survey. It has been shown that combining intense qualitative data in combination with quantitative data is extremely fruitful. Internationally there are many longitudinal studies (e.g. SHARE, GGS) but these are usually quantitative surveys. We are planning to collect longitudinal qualitative data. In the first round of Gentrans we made about 40 qualitative interviews and now we aim to interview the same people again. We also collect new qualitative data from baby boomers, their adult children and baby boomers grandchildren.

The Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) is a multidisciplinary and cross-national longitudinal survey including many questions concerning family networks, health, social benefits and social support. The respondents are representative for the European population aged 50 and over. The third wave (SHARELIFE) data collection focuses on people’s life histories. More than 30,000 older people across 14 European countries take part in this wave. The SHARELIFE data collection took place in 2008–2009 and the data is soon available for researchers. The fourth wave data collection takes place in years 2011–2012.

Gentrans relates to SHARE in two ways. First, Gentrans was originally designed to be partly comparable with SHARE. We are planning to partly adapt our second round survey questions in order to enrich the comparability. Second, we believe Finland needs to eventually join SHARE as it has become a central EU project encompassing all member states. SHARE has been selected as one of the main EU research infrastructure projects, and one of the very few in social sciences. Data from the longitudinal study GOAL (Ikihyvä Päijät-Häme) in Southern Finland will also continue to be used. Ageing processes of three birth cohorts (born 1946-50, 1936-40 and 1926-30) will be followed from 2002 to 2012. The number of respondents in the first study wave was 2,824; 1,371 of them were baby boomers. This data is relevant for our study e.g. for comparative purposes.

Methods. We use standard quantitative analysis techniques (cross-tabulation, EDA, log linear models, logistic regression models and correspondence analysis) and, for qualitative data, techniques for qualitative analysis of large text sets using standard program packages (Atlas.ti, NVivo) to generate life history models. The team has long and many-sided experience in various research methods.

Ethical concerns. We shall submit the research proposal to an Ethical committee of a relevant research unit (THL). Especially important are questions relative to informed consent, creation of a research register and linking of different sensitive registers. Participants are explicitly told that survey answers will be linked to register data. The participants may withdraw from the study at any time. Participants are asked for consent to contact them again regarding the next survey follow-up in 2017. Ethical considerations include publications and appearances in a style and language accessible to the respondents themselves. GENTRANS has received lively interest and response from the media and lay people, and we will continue to publish in Finnish and to give interviews also for the popular media (TV, radio, family and retired people’s magazines).