Inter - Generational Solidarity
In order to understand the historical discontinuities I am referring to, we can
recollect that, generally speaking, the relations between families and governments have
followed two typical patterns or stages.
a. In the first half of the twentieth century, national welfare states used to address
families and children mainly in terms of social control: families were granted economic,
legal and material provisions in exchange for men's control over women and children.
Family rights embodied individual rights so that people (in particular children) suffered
from bonds which were too compelling. Children's rights were greatly restricted: they
were almost completely subsumed under the family coverage. In case of family failure,
total institutions were delegated to pick up the children.
b. Since the second world war, national welfare states have, in a sense, reversed the
previous pattern: they have acknowledged an increasing number of social rights and
provisions for individuals and social categories (in particular women, handicapped
people, old people, and children), but have left the family apart. The rights of the family
as a social group and institution have been undermined in many respects. In a certain
sense, the family has lost its citizenship. The overall outcome has been the decline of
fertility and the creation of a social environment unfavourable to the reception of the
newly born (be it a direct or an indirect effect).
The evaluation of the positive and negative outcomes of these policies cannot be
elaborated here, both because I have not enough room here and because this subject is
already well documented (e.g. Dumon ed., 1989).
c. Nowadays many countries (particularly western countries) are entering a stage (or
pattern) which is very different from the previous ones under many aspects.
On the one hand, the new trends contradict the old pattern (which used to be
dominant until the end of the XX century) in so far as the family cannot be considered
and handled as a social control agency which acts on behalf of the state: the family has
acquired an increasing autonomy (autopoiesis) and is oriented towards managing its
generational problems even more privately.
On the other hand, the new trends must differ from the old patterns in so far as it
becomes clear that the multiplication of individual rights is only a partial solution. If we
want to have a social environment which is more sensitive to children's needs, then we
must give proper consideration to the repercussions that the lack of social support for
families has on children.
1.3. In the perspective of the development of citizenship rights, the new issues
revolve around the need for a better compatibility between individual and family rights:
both kinds of entitlements must be secured, and the pursuit of this target should be done
in such a way as to foster relations of social solidarity and equity between generations.
If societies really want to pursue this goal, then families should become valid
interlocutors of societal institutions and governments, at every level (regional, national,
and supernational). This is, I believe, our topic. From the point of view of the
development of families and children rights, the last decade has been one of lost
opportunities. But, at the same time, it has been fruitful, since a new "generational"
awareness has arisen and grown up.
1.4. This paper is divided into two parts. In the first part, I intend to sketch a profile
of the main social needs of families and children emerging all over the world today in
terms of intergenerational issues (pr. 2, 3). The argument is that sociological research
must recognize that families are a sub-system of society. In the second part, I argue that
family needs can and should be solved with reference to the issue of "intergenerational
solidarity (or equity)", which has to be defined accurately (pr. 4, 5). In the conclusions
(pr. 6), I contend that the present agenda and strategies of nation-States are not well
suited to confront the issue of intergenerational equity, and I make some suggestions
about the ways to overcome these deficiencies.
2. Where is the family going ? Emerging social needs of families and children and
the undertaking of political replies.
2.1. What do families need ?
It is of course impossible to synthesize here the very many empirical surveys and
statistical research projects done on this broad subject matter (some of the most recent
reports are listed in the final bibliography: Chouraqui, 1986; EEC Documents; Cornia
ed., 1992; Donati & Matteini eds., 1991; Dumon, 1990; Moss, 1988; Oepfn, 1990;
Qvortrup et al., 1991). What I can say, without going into detail here, is that societal
changes occurring throughout the world are deeply affecting family structures and
children conditions along with the following main trends:
- families go on splitting up (increasing the number of singles and one-parent families);
- families show a decreasing average size (mainly due to the decline in the birth rate);
- families are ageing (rise in the average age of households);
- families display worrying signs of psycho-social pathologies, both within the couple
(separation and divorces) and towards children (violence, abuse, maltreatment,
- families stick to a cultural process of privatisation in their choices, feelings, and
expectations, so that narcissistic and selfish orientations prevail on behaviours of
internal solidarity and civic participation;
- the continuing existence of poor families is also striking; we can distinguish them into
poor working families (low income strata) and underclass families (stemming from
unemployment, lack of professional training -e.g. unskilled women-, irregular
immigration and other factors excluding people from the regular labour market); but
what is more important is to observe that poverty is generally associated with particular
family structures (such as one parent families and large families with many children).
By putting the emphasis on these trends I do not mean to claim that there have been
no social advancements and no positive achievements. As a matter of fact a general and
remarkable improvement of material living conditions has taken place in most countries
in the last few decades. What I want to stress and thematise here is something which can
be expressed in the form of the following questions: is the above depicted picture
satisfactory in order to understand the deeper meaning of present changes ? is this
picture a plausible basis for a reliable sociological understanding of the situation and for
a sound social policy ?
On balance, I am afraid, the answers to these questions are negative.
If one sticks with the above sketched portrait of the social conditions of families,
then the list of needs becomes only an endless cahier de doléances which refer to:
- socially weak families (e.g. one parent families; families below the poverty line;
underclass families with handicapped children, with unemployed or unskilled members,
especially women; immigrant, socially isolated or non integrated families);
- and pathological families (e.g. severely ill, educationally inadequate or abusing
where children are stigmatised or are exposed to a wide range of risks.
If policies follow the logic of addressing single issues, they end up by formulating a
long list of needs and priorities in which the family almost disappears, or at least is
reduced only to a problematic object. This has been the dominant pattern followed until
The main shortcoming of this approach lies in the fact that the needs of families and
children are formulated in a disconnected and patchy way. So are the replies, in terms of
policies. One cannot clearly see the links between different wants and different persons
as a malfunction in the exchanges between generations.
The descriptive approach I am referring to tells us only that, on the whole, societal
changes have created deep imbalances among generations. It ends up by saying that
many families find themselves in such a situation that they cannot deal with issues of
generational solidarity and equity through the private sphere alone. This is of course
true, but it is only one side of the coin. The other side says that families and societies
have to mobilise in order to solve their problems.
The question: "what do families need ?" should be given a reply which is very
simple and extremely complex at the same time: families need to be fully recognised as
This perspective leads us to new observations. In particular it suggests that:
- (i) the living conditions of families depend on the complex of exchanges among
generations: as we know that there are social bonds between genders that penalise
women, so it is also now apparent that there are bonds between generations that
penalise those who have children in respect to childless people;
- (ii) our society cannot discharge the filial debt (the aid of younger people to the
older) on generations that are not generated; if the replacement of the population
should go on at the depressed levels which have occurred in the last two decades,
around the middle of the next century only a few social security systems will be able to
assure a fairly good income level for the older generations;
- (iii) the social needs of families and children should be given new attention not
only from the material point of view (lack of income, lodging, health) but especially
from the relational point of view. The social needs of children cannot be managed either
within the family alone nor by addressing them as a social category per se: they must be
met by looking at the adequacy of the relationships between children and their everyday
social environment. Welfare systems must operate on the network of social ties in which
children live rather than on individuals.
If we want to have a more integrated and global picture of the issues at stake, we
must consider the fact that most of the social problems arise when families do not
perform their tasks as mediating structures linking together needs and persons in a
proper way. This is the core issue at stake. One is led to the idea that it could be more
productive to look at present social problems through a re-interpretation of family
functions, and that such a perspective could also be more equitable and effective from
the point of view of practical solutions, provided that families are helped by society to
But is there something like "the family" ? Is it not true that the family is seriously in
crisis and that in many areas it is almost disappearing ?
As a matter of fact the trends described above are, as a rule, decoded in that way.
The most diffuse interpretations of the family condition all over the world quite often
reveal two basic biases.
I. First, they contain an evolutionist reading of the family, as if it were bound to
disappear, which is at least dubious (Lévi-Strauss, 1983).
II. Second, they reduce the family life cycle to the life course approach, treating
families only as a provisional set of contingent individual careers, which is also an
improper operation (Aldous, 1990). Of course the life span approach is a useful tool for
looking at the dynamics of households, but it cannot substitute the family life cycle
2.2. After the crisis of the family.
At this point, it becomes clear that we cannot give a significant answer to the issue
of families' and children's needs unless we have a more precise idea of where the family
Most literature on the so-called "crisis of the family" has made serious mistakes or
has incurred plain misunderstandings: on the one hand it has overestimated the crisis, on
the other hand it has underestimated it. The last decades have demonstrated that neither
the theories asserting the "death of the family" nor the theories supporting the view of a
supposed dominance of the "nuclear family model" have proved right. Neither theory
fits empirical reality, nor are they useful for social policies.
Today it should be more evident than yesterday that the family has indeed faced a
deep crisis, but this crisis must be interpreted adequately. Family changes have certainly
been radical, but not in the sense that the family is going to disappear or lose its most
relevant social functions. On the contrary, the family has proved to be an active subject:
under many respects it is still a "latent" actor of society in so far as it precedes and
exceeds it, i.e. "goes beyond it".
Extrapolating the current phenomena within and around the family as if they were to
move forward in a linear way over time could be not only wrong but also damaging. As
Roussel rightly points out, if the "uncertain" family of the present age should become
the dominant type, and if the family should therefore give up its institutional
dimensions, then for the new generations there shall remain nothing more than a mere
incitement to egotistical desires or to overt violence (Roussel, 1989).
From this angle, it becomes more and more urgent to re-read the meaning of family
changes not only in a socio-cultural perspective (as a question of fashion, opinions,
psychological feelings), but also as a social and political issue. The family must again
and again be interpreted as a difference which makes a difference: in what ways is a
family different from other social relationships and in what ways this difference is
relevant today in comparison with the past ?
If we place ourselves in such a perspective, the distinction between familiar/non-
familiar becomes more and more, not less and less, relevant and meaningful: to have a
family or not, to have a family which is competent or malfunctioning, to have a family
with a certain living style or another, all these factors become more and more
determinant in the life of children. The family as a social relation discloses itself as
increasingly discriminating in respect to non-family relations.
Why, then, have many come to believe that just the opposite is true ? The fact is that
the family is exposed to a (seeming) paradox: it becomes less relevant and more
relevant at the same time. This happens, of course, in different domains: the family
becomes less important from the point of view of social order and control (it loses
ground particularly in its relationships with the political-administrative system), while it
increases its importance in the sphere of daily informal relations, particularly those
which concern the health of children and their primary socialization.
If we adopt this perspective, it becomes clearer how and why governments have
treated the family in an ambiguous way. For instance: many national reforms appeal to
the family as a socializing agency of minors who are deviant or drop out, just when the
family displays its deep difficulties in the education of children. The fact is that in order
to understand these paradoxes we must avoid thinking of the family either in traditional
terms or in terms of sheer subjective feelings.
These considerations do not lead us to an easy evaluation of the crisis of the family.
Where is the family going ? For a plausible answer, I believe, we are led to a
perspective according to which we are witnessing a qualitative change (morphogenesis)
in the forms of the family as a social group and as a social institution at the same time.
In what does this morphogenesis consist ?
Briefly, I would like to describe it as follows.
2.3. How families change.
The new needs of families and children must be spelled out and coped with in the
context of two fundamental tendencies, which are ambivalent in themselves: (a) on the
one hand they ask for more freedom, (b) on the other hand they need new regulations
for the common good. Let us look at the two sides of the coin.
a) On the one hand the family is inclined to constitute itself on the grounds of more
and more autonomous and individualised behaviours. As a social group the family is
made up of people who are holders of individual rights (it can be called the "auto-
poietic family"). This means that families tend to become normative for themselves;
they tend to create their own structures by themselves. Seemingly this occurs on the
basis of very individualistic behaviours. One says: the family becomes an interlacing of
highly contingent individual life courses. In reality it is a new social order which
emerges. Within it the family is at the same time looked for (as a sphere of
humanization) and repressed (as a sphere of solidarity). The family, now conceived as a
mere household, demands more autonomy from society, but if such autonomy does not
encounter reasonable forms of co-ordination and social regulation it runs the risk of
converting into isolation, breakdowns, and/or emargination of people.
b) On the other hand, the family activates new social demands which become a
basic referral for welfare policies. From this point of view families manifest the
exigency of assuming a new institutional role. They ask for many interventions which
- the need, for the couple, to live freely their fertility behaviours: they discover that
our society limits the freedom of procreation only downward, i.e. only in a restrictive
- the need to harmonise family life and work, and to solve this difficult issue through
a legal, economic, and social equality between the sexes;
- the need for more social protection of socially weak people living in the family, as
a consequence both of conjugal breakdowns and of critical events (illness, handicap,
- the need to reconcile family life and social services, leisure time, and civic
participation (the schedule of shops, social facilities, schools for children, TV programs,
and so on);
- the need for a fiscal treatment which can be equitable on the part of the state, and
be arranged so as not to penalise those who willingly assume more responsibilities in
favour of rearing children, and taking care of old and handicapped people;
- the need to strive against poverty without stigmatising the family itself, or its
- the need for welfare interventions which can take into full consideration the
quanti-qualitative structure of family wants;
- the need for more support for those families who engage in enterprises of mutual
help, self-help, volunteering, and cooperation, especially in the field of personal social
services: this relates to the topic of the role of the family in community care;
- the need to have political representation in order to promote the rights of families
as consumers and clients.
At the heart of all these new needs we find the fact that social policies have not
addressed properly families' and children's conditions in so far as welfare policies:
- have stockpiled individual rights without upholding the family system as a
solidarity network for the support of the person, as it is in reality (Dumon in Shamgar &
Palomba eds., 1987);
- social security systems have not been designed according to the family life cycle
- welfare expenditures do not take into account the need for a "logic of
compatibility" between generations: generally speaking, they have devoted too much to
the elderly and too little to children (Pampel & Stryker, 1990; Preston, 1984; Sgritta,
In synthesis: all over the world, on the one hand civil society has created a deep lack
of continuity and even breaks among generations, and on the other hand both global
markets (globalization processes) and public welfare policies have complied with these
trends rather than trying to balance their inherent contradictions.
The main issue concerns the pursuit of a new, dynamic equilibrium between
families and the other spheres of society (work; school; leisure; civic activities) taking
into account the "generational variable". We need a new dialogue between families and
other social institutions inspired by full reciprocity and equity vis-à-vis the new
This is particularly important in the so called "divided families". It has been
increasingly noticed that divorce is detrimental to children, particularly because of the
fathers' absence. At the same time, it is more and more recognised that large-scale
changes in fathers' behaviour is not likely to occur by simple modification of custody
orders or improvements in child-support enforcement - or, really, by any measures
addressed solely to absent fathers. Rather, what is required is a deeper and quite radical
change in the way all fathers relate to their children. What is needed is a greater sense of
shared responsibility and partnership in childrearing. Furstenberg and Cherlin (1991, p.
119) ask us: "can it happen ?" They continue: "If women's wages in the labour market
approach men's, women may have more leverage in negotiating shared parenthood in
exchange for pooling incomes. But equality in earnings will also make it easier to be a
single parent...Perhaps the best that we can expect is a family system with unions that
are more egalitarian but less stable. Such a system might provide an improvement in
family life for adults, but it would not be a clear improvement for children".
I take this as an example of the fact that the new needs of families lead us to a new
interpretation of its social role: families need first of all to be recognised as social
subjects in themselves, as systems which provide their children with fully shared
protection even in the case of family breakdown.
On a larger scale, this means that society should consider more carefully alternative
ways of operating on the family: can society increase individual rights as mere
individual entitlements or has it to treat individual rights in a relational manner, which
implies structuring rights and entitlements so as to push people into being willingly co-
operative with each other ?
It is more and more evident that national welfare states (including the European
countries) have not taken into account the generational unbalances and their long-term
effects. Today there are many empirical evidencies that public policies must now
engage in this re-orientation.
3. Is there something like a "society of families" ? Are families a sub-system of
3.1. Let me introduce quite a simple idea.
In order to pass on from social needs to policy replies we must conceptualise the
global issue at stake in a suitable manner. Whatever the definition of "the family" and of
"family policy" (Dumon, 1987; Aldous & Dumon, 1990; Wisensale, 1990), one cannot
speak of policies for families and children without having in mind an adequate
representation of the role and functions that families as a whole perform for the entire
society. In order to be effective, this representation should be based on a wide
Now, it is a legacy of the modern era to have differentiated our society into four
fundamental sub-systems: the economy (with its markets), the political government
(with its public administration), the associations (with their autonomous organisations)
and families (with what ? as far as I can see, I would like to reply: a specific welfare
network linking formal and informal provisions and services).
Each one of these spheres has developed on the basis of its own symbolic code, with
its own means, and has built up its own institutions, through a proper codification of
rights and duties. When we speak of "national states" we refer to complex societal
systems which are articulated on the premises of specific forms of social differentiation
and integration among these four sub-systems.
From analogy, the construction of an integrated society must also make reference to
the theory and practice included in such a representation. It has a long-standing and
consolidated sociological tradition (fig. 1).
Fig. 1- The social structure of modernised societies.
(government & administration)
1 6 3
A 12 I
(markets) 11 (third sector organisations)
Families and primary
As many sociological studies have elucidated, the two sub-systems of the economic
market (A) and the political government (G) have been the hinge of global
modernization in the last two centuries. They are built upon their specific generalised
means of exchange, namely money and law. The other two sub-systems, associations (I)
and families (L), on the contrary, have been penalised. So has their own role in society,
which is to foster social solidarity, reciprocity, and trust in what sociologists call the
A lot has been written about economy and governments; entire libraries. As a matter
of fact, political and integration across countries, difficult as it may be, seems to be
anyway easier than social and cultural integration between them. Given for granted that
we can pursue to a certain degree the economic and integration of societies, what about
the integration of the other two sub-systems (associations and families) ?
The European Union is a good example. Within the above depicted framework, in
Europe families run the risk of being treated as a mere reference for consumption and
social assistance. European Social Charter, in fact, does not mention widely and
explicitly the social rights of families, in particular with reference to the generational
dilemmas. As we all know, the national governments have different attitudes in relation
to family policies, and the principle of subsidiarity has been recognised and
institutionalised – in a quite reductive way – as a principle which afford each nation-
State to do its own family ad generational policies. At the beginning of the ‘90s, the
setting up of a European Observatory on national family policies clearly indicated that
the EU acknowledged the importance of the family as a social institution, while various
measures and initiatives (particularly concerning child care facilities, adolescents
commencing work life, poor children and migrant families) were forming the
beginnings of a common framework for young generations' rights. It seemed, at that
time, that social regulations in these field were becoming more and more inevitable. But
the situation has deeply changed during the ‘90s. The European Observatory on national
family policies has been reduced both in its ends and in its activities, while social
regulations common to the national countries have been dismissed.
Now a question arises as to the latter two sub-systems (associations and families):
what are their rights and duties ? what is the citizenship accorded to them ? To pursue a
sound project of intergenerational solidarity means to accord a new strategic role to
associations and families (Donati, 1987). As a matter of fact, we must admit that the
"fourth sub-system" (families) is, in many regards, the least clear. It is not by chance
+1 anno fa
Materiale didattico per il corso di Sociologia del benessere del professor Pierpaolo Donati. Trattasi dell'articolo del professore dal titolo "Inter - Generational Solidarity: a Sociological and Social Policy Issue", all'interno del quale si affronta il tema delle relazioni intergenerazionali e dei cambiamenti nella struttura della famiglia come istituzione sociale.
I contenuti di questa pagina costituiscono rielaborazioni personali del Publisher Atreyu di informazioni apprese con la frequenza delle lezioni di Sociologia del benessere e studio autonomo di eventuali libri di riferimento in preparazione dell'esame finale o della tesi. Non devono intendersi come materiale ufficiale dell'università Bologna - Unibo o del prof Donati Pierpaolo.
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