Intergenerational relationships in contemporary UK

This project is part of Phase I of the Secondary Data Analysis Initiative of the Economic and Social Research Council.

Outline of project

Family and kinship have been of long-standing interest to social scientists and form the backdrop for the design of many policies, including social security, pensions, child care and personal care for the elderly. Our focus is on the relationships between parents and their adult children, how intergenerational contact and help respond to needs and resources of both generations, and how contact and help affect people's well being. The research would contribute to the ESRC's strategic priority of 'influencing behaviour and informing interventions'.

Past research on intergenerational relationships includes the important tradition of the community studies of the 1950s and 1960s, a number of studies based on small local or regional samples and recent research on large nationally representative samples. But nearly all of these studies are cross-sectional in nature, which limits their ability to address issues of causality. In contrast, our research analyses longitudinal data (i.e. repeated observations of the same people). In particular, it uses the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), Understanding Society and the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA).

Each of these supports our investigation in different ways. The BHPS is a mature panel study, having interviewed people since 1991, and its sample is now incorporated in Understanding Society. It interviews people from both sides the intergenerational exchange (although parents and adult children are not matched to one another). Understanding Society has a very large sample, with about 80,000 individuals in each wave, but it only started in 2009. It will allow us to explore differences in intergenerational relationships for small social groups like ethnic minorities (who are over-sampled) and single parents. ELSA is a panel study of the over-50s which started in 2002. It currently offers a four-year panel and has excellent measures of health, wealth and income, but it interviews the parent generation only. All three panel studies contain measures of intergenerational support and contact, but to different degrees.

We are interested in the help that parents and adult children give to one another. Because the frequency of contact between them is valued in itself, particularly by parents, it is another focus of our research. In addition, both help and contact are constrained by geographical distance. Our research would estimate the impacts of the needs and resources of parents and their adult children on: (1) how far apart they live from one another; (2) how often they are in contact with one another; (3) how much and what kinds of help and support they give each other. It also investigates how proximity, contact and help are related to each other. The important final component of our research gauges how contact and help affect the well-being of parents and their adult children.

The research would use a range of quantitative methods which aim to exploit the longitudinal data that we have in the best ways. These include latent class models to establish the underlying structure of intergenerational exchange; instrumental variables to address issues of causality; fixed effects models to account for persistent unobserved differences between individuals; and structural equation models to explore the links between proximity, contact, help and well being. Some of these methods require longitudinal data, others can be applied with greater confidence when such data is available.

Key questions

The over-arching aims of the proposed research are to provide a better understanding of intergenerational support and relationships and their impact on the well-being of parents and their adult children, with a view to informing debate in a number of policy areas. To this end, our main objectives are:


The project will be based on the secondary, and primarily quantitative analysis of large-scale and nationally representative data-sets collected in recent years. The surveys that we have identified cover a wide range of both `high' and `popular' cultural activities, thus allowing us to consider the social bases of, for example, reading tabloids as well as broadsheets, going to the cinema as well as the opera, listerning to pop as well as classical music.


Contact Info:

Department of Sociology
University of Oxford
Manor Road, Oxford OX1 3UQ
United Kingdom

tel: +44 (1865) 286176
fax: +44 (1865) 286171
email: tw [dot] chan [at] sociology [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk

Last modified: Fri Dec 14 17:36:40 GMT 2012