Inter - Generational Solidarity
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
that the sociological theory identifies it as the "latent sub-system" of the whole society
(Donati, 1991, ch. 4). If governments can easily observe and guide the NGOs
(Kaufmann et al. eds., 1986), this is much more difficult for families. But this is
precisely why the challenge is interesting.
There is much rhetoric about families. They are mentioned in many documents,
recommendations, laws, conventions, but we can hardly say that they are really
recognised as a sub-system of society. On the contrary they are more often addressed as
passive consumers, clients of social assistance, social "cells" which perform or do not
perform the tasks that society "delegates" to them. The appeals from the international
associations speaking on behalf of families (see for instance the COFACE documents at
the European level), clearly indicate all of this.
It is therefore an interesting theme to begin thinking in what sense and with what
consequences families could and should be treated as a sub-system of the whole society.
3.2. What does it mean ?
Families are a sub-system for the following main reasons.
a. Families perform a huge quantity of social functions which no state, no public
administration, no market can "socialise". Neither can these functions be "privatised",
in the sense of being considered a mere responsibility of private subjects, as sometimes
governments do in order to reduce social expenses devoted to collective services.
b. Families certainly use the means of the other sub-systems (money, law, etc.), but
they have their own means of communication and social exchange. We can think of
social reciprocity within and between generations. Without such reciprocity there
cannot exist trust and equity in society. It is the cultural basis of all our institutions. And
it grows up inside the family before anywhere else.
c. In the end, families are the social location of those dimensions of generational
equity which cannot be assumed by any other actor in society. It does not admit any
3.3. What does it imply ?
Recognising that families are a sub-system of society implies the need for more
social regulations, but at the same time a peculiar form of regulation which can allow
families to become a social movement and act as a "social subjectivity". Present
advanced industrial societies cannot avoid creating a more attentive policy towards the
sub-system of families for the simple reason that what happens within it has many deep
repercussions in all the other sub-systems (the labour market, the social security system,
the organisation of social services at large) (Donati, 1990/b).
It is a traditional attitude of national governments not to enter into the private sphere
of the family. One must certainly respect this stance, which guarantees a legitimate
sphere of autonomy for people. But, on the other hand, society cannot abstain from
regulating those social structures and behaviours from which many social problems
stem, such as child neglect and abuse, the abandonment of the elderly, and so on
(Hantrais & Letablier, 1996).
The problem is: how do governments intervene within the family domain ? After
policies are decided, who will implement them ? What is the role of public
bureaucracies vis-à-vis family networks and associations ? Do public agencies behave
as intruders or enablers ?
It is certainly true that families, as I have already said, are accentuating their private
features. But if our analysis stops here it will be incomplete and biased. In reality,
families are also subject to an increasing process of "publicisation", which is inevitable
and necessary to ensure social justice in the public realm. The seeming paradox of a
double process of "privatisation" and "publicisation" of the family is yet to be
understood (Donati, 1990/a). But we cannot have any doubt about the fact that it is
happening. The crisscrossing of what is considered to be private and what is public in
the family grows inevitably.
The main problem is not to recognise that families are more and more important at
the public level, but to understand why this importance expands in a latent,
unrecognised way. Thinking that families are only a "cultural survival" or mere "private
business" is a big mistake, both from a sociological and from a social policy point of
Briefly, to contend that, in society at large, families constitute a sub-system means
making it clear that they have something in common, and that this commonwealth has
precise societal functions which do not admit any functional equivalent. If this is true,
then this sub-system should get - as such - an adequate symbolic representation and an
explicit full citizenship for itself and for its members. It is of the utmost importance that
such recognition be in line with the solution of what is mostly at stake: generational
4. A new frontier: the struggle for inter- generational equity.
If the arguments presented so far are reasonable, then it is right to claim that policies
for family and children are becoming more and more a question of equity between and
within generations. It is therefore particularly important to clarify what "generational
equity" means. To my mind, generational equity has different meanings, and also
different spheres in which it may or may not be achieved.
a) There are at least three different dimensions to be distinguished.
(i) Equity between generations in the use of resources available to copresent
different age groups at a given time.
Strictly speaking, generational equity means allocating the available resources
according to criteria of justice in the way that the shares are distributed to the various
age groups. For instance: how much is given to children in comparison with what is
given to adults and the elderly ?
For the best solution of these issues it is necessary to adopt two basic criteria: first,
the adoption of rules of compatibility (what is given to one generation, e.g. old people,
must be in balance with what is given to another, e.g. children); second, the adoption of
measures that can result in non-zero sum games: in other words, measures which can
create other resources by stimulating help, solidarity, and co-operation given by one
generation to another.
Inherent to this concept is the fact that it concerns not only the present time, but also
the future. What we do now to the younger generations has repercussions on what they
will be able to do in the near future.
(ii) Equity between generations in the transfer of resources from one generation
to the next.
We have to analyse the generational impact: what a generation leaves to the
following one and how it affects its life chances. The impact has, of course, cultural
aspects (in terms of values, norms, and styles of life which are transmitted to the
younger generation), psychological aspects (adults can give more or less trust and sense
of security to their children), economic aspects (older generations can leave a greater or
lesser share of work, greater or lesser resources of social security, larger or smaller
shares of assets), ecological aspects (one generation can leave a more or less polluted
environment, and more or less natural resources).
In a broader sense, then, generational equity means investing in the new generations
so as to equip them adequately in order to meet the challenges they will have to cope
with, taking into account how much the preceding generation has consumed and
therefore the problems of scarcity which are transferred to the future.
For the solution of these problems it is necessary that the ratio between what is
presently produced and consumed be positive.
(iii) Equity within a newborn generation. It concerns the treatment of newborn
people in relation to the generational "charge" assumed by their own family of
orientation. Since each family contributes in a different way to the reproduction of
society, coeteris paribus, there is a difference between growing up in a family as an
only child and growing up as the brother or sister of another child or other children.
This factor means different opportunities for any social achievement.
In this sense, generational equity concerns the exigency of eliminating or
compensating for the disadvantages which derive from the fact of being reared in a
family which has a different generational load in respect to other age peers.
If we do not take this dimension into consideration, then the public and private
transfers end up by heavily discriminating on children: some of them will be privileged
while others will be condemned to the so-called cycle of deprivation as a result of their
parents' generational choices.
Public policies must be inspired here by two main guiding criteria. Firstly, minors
should all have the same opportunities of access to social entitlements independently of
their family composition and standard of living. Secondly, childless families (childless
people, and even firms) should pay something more for families who have children. At
least taxation systems should benefit families with children in respect to childless
families more than occurs today.
b) Beside the three dimensions sketched above, one must consider the different
social spheres where the issues of generational equity are (or should be) managed: the
private sphere (families and "social private" networks) and the public sphere (state and
In the past, most of the transfers were handled within the kinship, a fact which has
contributed to a high degree of social inequality. Today, society mediates these transfers
to a greater extent. But are these operations really in line with the pursuit of generational
Many research results say that this is not the case. The redistribution operated by the
state can be, sometimes, even worse. Or, in any case, it might well be that it does not
reach the goals of a real generational equity in the three above specified dimensions.
Usually this happens because public redistribution (to poorer families) and transfers
(schemes of social security) are not tuned to the family composition and its position in
its life cycle.
In order to see the whole picture of the generational equity issue, I will sketch a
figure (fig. 2) which we should consider carefully.
Fig. 2- Dimensions and relational spheres which define the issues of intergenerational
solidarity (equity). Spheres for the management of
intergenerational solidarity (equity):
(1.family and (3.state and
2.primary networks) 4.regulated markets)
i. redistribution of
resources between a b
ii. ratio between present
consumption and investment c d
in future generations
iii. equality of opportunity
for the newborn in relation
to the generational e f
charge assumed by the
families in which
children are born
If we pay attention to the six cells of fig. 2, many interesting questions arise. At the
present state of social research we can answer only a few of them.
a) How efficient are families in the redistribution of resources between co-present
generations ? It seems that this is the most important function that families perform, and
there is evidence that they still do it quite well when they stay intact. This becomes an
issue where families split up.
b) How efficient are states and markets in the redistribution of resources among
copresent generations ? We do not have good research findings on these topics. They
must be left to future investigations.
c) What is the present ratio between consumptions and investments in future
generations within the family ? Recent research shows that, in most countries, families
save less and less money. But, due to the restrictions in fertility, in the short run they
can invest more on fewer children. In this way, anyhow, they transfer to the collectivity
the costs of a private gain, since they have contributed less than others to the
reproduction of society.
d) What is the present ratio between consumptions and investments in the future
generations on the part of state and markets ? This is a very complex question which
cannot have a well-documented answer. We need more investigation.
e) Do families succeed in assuring equality of chances to their children vis-à-vis
their different composition (number of children) ? Empirical surveys show that this is
not the case.
f) Does the state succeed in assuring equality of chances to children vis-à-vis the
different composition (number of children) of their families ? Some success has been
achieved, but a lot has still to be accomplished. The last question: "do markets succeed
in assuring equality of opportunities for children vis-à-vis the different composition
(number of children) of their families ?" has a clearly negative reply.
The conceptual framework I have put forward here can at least be useful in
assessing the issues at stake and in promoting new investigations which can help in
pushing the envisaged change towards more equity.
5. Social policies: up-dating the agenda and looking for sounder and more effective
5.1. Up-dating the agenda.
Only very recently national governments have put families and children on its
agenda. The spirit of this agenda is clearly to help families in performing their
functions. Most governmentes today explicitly recognise the need for new interventions
in order to improve family life. These interventions are devised in many different and
well articulated fields, in particular: women's condition and motherhood; income and
social security, particularly in cases of broken and at risk families; child-care services
In the light of what I have claimed so far, all of these goals are certainly very
important and relevant. However, one can wonder whether there is a global design and
adequate strategies behind them. The envisaged measures are undoubtedly needed, but
they could be insufficient in the long run for managing the issue of generational equity.
We are always exposed to the risk of being behind the times. Up-dating the agenda
means, in fact, to grasp the novelty of a situation, its discontinuities and the wider
scenario it reveals.
5.2. In the long run, the global design to be pursued must aim at creating those
social conditions which can allow families and children to master an increasingly risky
environment. This design can be sketched in terms of general goals to be pursued and
of the strategies they require.
5.3. As to the general goals, they can be devised as follows.
- The reform of social security systems according to the family life cycle. As it has been
shown by many national experiences (see Vella ed., 1990), social security systems are
never indifferent to family and child needs: they always reward or penalise them. Social
security schemes must be designed with more flexibility so as to adapt to the differential
load families have in the different stages of their life cycle, with respect to the number
and social conditions of their members.
- A bigger investment in new generations. Families seem to invest less and less in new
generations. Some nation-states have picked up this task increasingly, but without an
explicit policy. It is nowadays more and more evident that, if they want to survive,
governments must assume more responsibility for what one generation leaves to the
next in terms of public resources, taking into account not only the economic, but also
the cultural, social, and ecological dimensions of generational transfers. So far a few
researches have been done on this topic (Modell, 1989).
- Real freedom of choice in having babies. To rebalance the ratio among generations means
putting families in the condition to have a number of children close to the replacement
level. The point is not to adopt pro-natalist policies in the spirit of incrementing the
population, but to take up policies oriented towards more social justice. Apart from the
fact that incentives in favour of pro-natalist policies would have minimal effects, the
problem is basically to fill the gap between the number of children that couples really
have and the number of children they would like. With high probability, this means
bringing the fertility ratio up to about 2.1 children per woman; but this is not easy. For
instance, in Italy, to elevate the fertility rate from the present level (1.2 children per
women) up to 1.8 would mean that about 30% of all women should have a third child,
which is a very difficult and costly target.
5.4. In order to pursue these goals it is necessary to develop consistent public
strategies. The latter can be outlined as follows.
- The structuration of welfare interventions along family lines. If we recognise that the
welfare state cannot substitute parents' responsibilities, then its main task is to sustain
them through collective arrangements which are adequate for the peculiarities of family
life. In a sense, the whole social organisation should not only pay attention to family
needs, but be structured according to them. Consequently, we need strategies which are
able to enhance time-to-care measures (e.g. parental leave, etc.), family designed
services in educational settings, personal social services and health settlements, and
more generally the familisation of welfare packages (home care, etc.) even when the
request for help comes from an individual alone.
- The interplay between formal and informal services through a community care policy.
Statutory and informal aid are not to be seen as opposites or substitutes, but, on the
contrary, as complementary and operating together: the key idea is to foster networks
linking together primary groups and public services according to co-operative styles of
- The development of social organisations (NGOs) mediating the linkages between families
and political authorities (local/regional, national, supranational). This means the
fostering of family-based voluntary organisations, cooperatives, mutual and self-help
groups, associations, and so on, provided that they are able to perform intergenerational
- Intersectorality in social policies. Policy measures should link together different sectors
of intervention in meeting different needs (economic, social, educational, health, etc.).
- The adoption of policy styles inspired by what as been called "relational guidance",
which means involving families, both as individual entities and as collective (i.e.
associated) bodies, in designing plans of intervention.
The emerging idea is that social policy is not integrated simply because it has its
"centre" in the state, but because it is able to grasp the needs of people's life-worlds and
to cope with them by focusing on the family as a unit of primary services in the
6.1. In the last few decades, most countries have adopted policies for families and
children which have been largely implicit, indirect and fragmented (sectorialised). The
result has been a deep worsening of intergenerational relations.
Today national welfare states cannot get any improvement if they do not recognize
that families must be helped to understand and cope with the problems of
intergenerational solidarity and equity on a large scale and in the long run. We are in
need of a new global rationality for the whole society.
Social policies aimed at solving the social problems of particular family forms
(socially weak, at risk, and pathological families) are missing this perspective. It
becomes therefore more and more relevant to design and implement a framework for
+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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