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Relationships between parents and their adult children: a West European typology of late-life families

  • DOI:
  • Published online: 22 December 2010

Following Reher's (1998) seminal paper on family ties in western Europe, the perspective that family solidarity patterns are divided between an individualistic north and a famialistic south has dominated the literature. We challenge this view and address the variability in intergenerational family solidarity within and across countries. Using multiple dimensions of intergenerational solidarity drawn from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe, we develop a typology of late-life families which is robust across northern, central and southern regions. The four types are: (a) descending familialism: living nearby, frequent contact, endorsement of family obligation norms, and primarily help in kind from parents to children, (b) ascending familialism: living nearby, frequent contact, endorsement of family obligation norms, and primarily help in kind from children to parents, (c) supportive-at-distance: not living nearby, frequent contact, refutation of family obligation norms, and primarily financial transfers from parents to adult children, (d) autonomous: not living nearby, little contact, refutation of family obligation norms, and few support exchanges. The four types are common in each European country, though the distributions differ. The findings suggest that scholars should abandon the idea that a particular country can be characterised by a single dominant type of late-life family. Socio-demographic differentials in family type follow predictable patterns, underscoring the validity of the developed typology.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Pearl Dykstra, Department of Sociology, Erasmus University Rotterdam, PO Box 1738, 3000 DR Rotterdam, The Netherlands. E-mail:
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