Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
The Long-Term Consequences of Later Adulthood: Some Unaddressed Policy Issues
Parents who are called on to provide economic and emotional assistance during a more protracted period of their children's semi-dependency may wonder whether these investments will erode or enhance their own economic security later in life. Arguably, greater transfers to their children reduce parents' savings for retirement, but they might also prompt children to return greater assistance to their parents later in life. Whether rising parental concerns about the adequacy of Social Security and pensions will reduce their investment in young adults remains an open issue. Martin Kohli and several colleagues are finding from their analysis of European data that the flow of assistance from parents to children persists into the latter decades of life.68 That trend holds true both in northern Europe, where autonomy comes relatively early, and in southern Europe, where it comes far later.69 Researchers can learn much from such cross-national comparisons about the societal determinants of interfamilial exchanges.70 Social security systems in both Europe and North America have permitted parents to provide financial aid to their offspring for a longer period. Does the generosity of the welfare system in providing aid to elders, support for education, and living expenses to young adults have consequences for patterns of investment by parents in their young adult offspring? And how in turn does the generosity of the welfare system affect patterns of exchange later in life?
The United States devotes relatively little public spending to supporting young adults. Spending for higher education, health care, and job benefits is meager to modest, although such investments appear to be increasing in the Obama administration. The relative paucity of public support has placed a heavier burden on families during young adults' increasingly protracted and uncertain transition to independence. The burden is particularly heavy for the families of vulnerable young adults, those with special needs and limited resources, whose families may be unable to provide necessary assistance after they reach the age of majority.71 In this country, much of the media attention about the prolongation of early adulthood has been directed to what is happening in affluent families. Far less is known about what happens to less well-off youth as they navigate the passage to adulthood, and particularly about the critical role that parents play (or fail to play) as their children struggle to complete their education, enter the labor market, form relationships, and have children.
The analysis by Schoeni and Ross revealed that a large fraction of parents extend assistance to their children in the early adult years and that, regardless of income, parents provide roughly the same proportion of their family income. That assistance, however, may be insufficient to meet the needs of grown children because many low-income parents simply lack the resources to give much in the way of direct financial assistance. When families cannot help out, youth are often left to flounder on their own. There is a pressing need for publicly provided health care, education and training, and social services for youth whose families cannot support them as they navigate the passage to economic self-sufficiency.
At a societal level, the United States and the rest of the developed world face a growing policy dilemma: the need to invest in children and youth while continuing to support the economic, health, and social needs of a growing population aged sixty-five and older. The dilemma has been largely managed so far by family exchange from the elderly to the young. The current public system of support for seniors is underfinanced, however, and many observers are talking about the need to reduce Social Security benefits to preserve the system. Cutting back on those benefits, though, may have unforeseen consequences for the ability of parents to invest in their young adult children. With less support from their parents, the middle generation may be required to cut back on their support for their own children to help out their parents. Low-income families, especially, may face competing demands from elderly parents and their young adult offspring.
Is it possible that the new job description for parents—the requirement that they provide greater support for children over longer periods—might discourage couples from having additional children or even having children at all?72 It does not seem farfetched to suggest that couples may begin to factor the long-term responsibilities of rearing children into their planning for their own retirement. If the economic burdens of rearing children become intolerable, potential parents may elect not to assume those costs. Such family decisions would lead to lower total fertility and ultimately reduce the workforce, thus further aggravating the problem of providing both for the elderly and for the young.