Intergenerational relations in China: What has changed over the last decade and does it matter?

Yazhen Yang is an SCDTP funded PhD candidate in the Department of Gerontology at the University of Southampton. Her PhD research is entitled: ‘Intergenerational Relations: The Changing Pattern of Economic, Social and Psychological Transfers within Chinese Families’.

Intergenerational relations in China: What has changed over the last decade and does it matter?

Mr. Zhang has already been on the train for more than 15 hours. He is one of the many migrants travelling a long distance for family reunions during the Chinese New Year. Zhang has been working in Beijing for 20 years, living together with his wife and son. His widowed mother, aged 64, is ‘left behind’ in a village in Jiangxi Province.

Zhang is faced with a dilemma of choosing between work and filial responsibility. Being the only child, Zhang wants to look after his sick mother who is suffering from a respiratory illness. However, Zhang’s son will no longer be able to attend the high school in Beijing if he returns his hometown. What should Mr. Zhang do?

This is only a condensed version of the dilemmas faced by Chinese migrants. There are about 290 million internal migrant workers in China, the majority of whom have left their older parents behind in their home province. The unprecedented ageing trend, in combination with massive urbanisation and modernisation, have brought great challenges to the lives of Chinese older people.

Unlike western societies, where social and health care services are relatively well developed, public social care in China is unavailable or insufficient. Moreover, many Chinese older people take it for granted that their adult children should act as their main care provider, influenced by the deeply rooted familial norms and filial piety. Nevertheless, the geographical separation between older parents and their adult children has led to difficulties in intergenerational exchanges.

The uncertainties and changes in intergenerational relations become worrisome: are they a sign of weakening family ties in China? How may the changes in intergenerational support and contact have an effect on Chinese older people’s health and wellbeing?

Some people believe that intergenerational support within Chinese families has declined, due to individualism among the younger generations and diverse family structures resulting from various factors such as divorce, migration and generation gaps.

Despite this, others argue that intergenerational exchanges can be maintained in a modern society. For instance, distant contact has gradually replaced the traditional way of in-person contact, with the popularisation of smart mobile phones and social media apps. Hence, new forms of intergenerational support imply new possibilities, and perhaps an assumption that a reduction in one type of support may not necessarily indicate a deterioration in intergenerational relations as a whole.

If the debate on changing intergenerational support in China is to be moved forward, a better understanding of the complicated nature of intergenerational relations is needed. My PhD study sets out to investigate the changing patterns of intergenerational economic, social and psychological support within Chinese families, and the impact of changes in living arrangements with adult children on changes in intergenerational support, and on their parents’ physical and psychological wellbeing.

My research has already revealed significant associations between these. For example, having both weekly in-person and distant contact with one’s adult children is beneficial for life satisfaction and protective from depressive symptoms among older people. By contrast, the provision of downward economic transfers by older people and the decrease in the upward social support by adult children have a negative impact on older people’s physical and psychological health.

The implications of this study can help to better support intergenerational ties and improve older people’s wellbeing in China, which is particularly important for practitioners and policy makers at the national, regional and local level. In fact, intergenerational flows of support as a topic are crucial to everyday family life and of interest to a wide range of audiences, while the lessons to be learnt may also have implications for other contexts globally.

Even in western countries where individualism thrives and old-age welfare is more effective, intergenerational transfers and contact play a crucial role in one’s later life. Fundamentally, not only the support provided from adult children to their older parents, but also the support provided from older people to their adult children, exert influences on older people’s health.

Overall, intergenerational relations are a key element of older people’s wellbeing. If the “unspeakable dawn in happy old age” described by Victor Hugo is to be achieved, greater efforts are needed to address the following questions.

How do older people conceptualise intergenerational support and what do they expect? How is it possible to bridge the generational divide between younger adults and older parents in contemporary China and the rest of the world? What policies and practices can help enhance intergenerational relations and improve the health of senior citizens? Addressing such questions can directly contribute to the wellbeing of future cohorts of older people around the world.

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