Motivations for Transfers and Social Norms

The previous section in this chapter showed that some people give and receive large financial gifts within their families, and we might infer that this is a sign of strong relationships/solidarity. But what do we know about why such gifts are given and what social norms there are in relation to this? Attias-Donfut et al. (2005) have analysed data on the motivations for financial transfers with ‘basic needs’ being the most common motivation in most countries with the exception of Germany, Austria and Italy, where support for major family events is a more common motivation. In a number of countries, support with buying or furnishing an apartment/ house and further education are also significant motivations for providing support.

Descartes’ (2006) study used qualitative methods to identify the types of support that parents gave to their adult children, and also the circumstances in which it took place and how parents and children felt about it. She found that structural factors shaped the practices of parents in way that did not always fit their ideals. This ‘structural ambivalence’ was due to the fact that ideologies of independence were frequently emphasised, but parents often still supported their children due to need or necessity. Where support was given that could not be justified on the basis of need, parents sometimes felt uncomfortable about it. As a way of dealing with this ambivalence, Descartes (2006) explains how some parents described their gifts to children as loans. ‘The label “loan”provided a means to preserve the ideal of independence, bridging the gap between ideology and need’ (p. 145). This strongly echoes the findings of Heath and Calvert (2013: 1120) who found that ‘the coexistence of a sense of both gratitude and discomfort which is often generated by [financial] exchanges is managed but by no means resolved by a blurring of the boundaries between gifts and loans’.

Family support, as suggested earlier in this chapter, depends on a range of factors including the resources the donor has; the demands they face from various family members; the family member’s needs and whether or not the ‘giver’ feels a sense of reward for helping. Research on the factors affecting inter-generational exchange therefore often touches on the underlying motivations behind such exchanges. Ganong and Coleman (2006) distinguished between various possible models of motivation for inter-generational exchange as follows:

  • • a norm of family obligation: people have duties to help family members
  • • altruism based on kinship: people want to help family members even at a cost to themselves
  • • altruism based on ageing and generational placement: older people in particular are more altruistic towards family members
  • • a norm of reciprocity: family members help each other
  • • a moral duty in accordance with religious or personal moral standards
  • • emotional attachment
  • • a function of inter-generational solidarity

It is interesting to explore these ideas in more detail. For example, Elster (2006: 186) defined altruistic financial transfers as ones where ‘the agent is willing to suffer a net loss in welfare by the promotion of the welfare of another’. Altruistic motives seem most common when help is greatly needed (Klein Ikkink et al. 1999). It may also be linked to notions of parental ‘duty’. However, it is difficult to distinguish between different motives, empirically, and they may even be contradictory. Alongside altruism and reciprocity, some gifts may be motivated by self-interest if the giver expects to receive more back than they have given. Albetini and Radi (2012) have argued that another type of motivation should be considered: status reproduction, which does not fit neatly into the altruism/ reciprocity/self-interest framework. They argued that a concern for status reproduction could be seen as altruism if the parental motive is to ensure that children are at least as successful as they have been and the cost to the parent is high. However, it can also be seen as self-interest (or reciprocity) if the parents derive some pride or pleasure(or ‘warm glow’) from the reproduction of status. One of the reasons parents help their children may also be because they see them as their ‘legacy’.

Hogan et al. (1993) have suggested that inter-generational support in the USA involves a mixture of altruistic giving and an exchange strategy (a more reciprocal act). Grandparents give support to their adult children, especially when those children are parents of a preschool-age child. Grandparents continue to give as long as they are able over their entire life course, especially to those children who bear them grandchildren. Adult children also tend to increase their support to parents in times of need. Even in the times of greatest need, nearly half of all persons receiving inter-generational support also give support, indicating the key role reciprocity may play in sustaining an exchange relationship among kin.

One interesting avenue to explore further here is whether members of different generations share similar approaches to financial support and how such values are passed on. Brannen (2006) studied 12 families with four generations (23 great grandparents through to 24 grandparents and 24 parents). She identified three broad ‘cultures of transmission’ in these families from: a culture of family continuity and mutuality; to a culture of discontinuity and independence; to a culture of personal autonomy. In some families, cultures were shared and transmitted across generations, particularly in the ‘culture of mutuality’. This culture was accompanied by solidaristic inter-generational transfers. The culture of independence was characterised by much greater distance between the generations, with people keen to ‘make their own way’ in life. The culture of personal autonomy was based on the idea of ‘freedom to’ create a new way of living involving personal responsibility. But this was often accompanied by considerable financial support among middle-class families. Younger generations in these families stressed their own efforts in becoming adults, playing down the support they received from other family members.

The cultural transmission of values in relation to supporting older generations within families has also been investigated by Jellal and Wolff (2002). They made a distinction in their research between emulation (whereby younger generations copy the values and behaviours of older generations in relation to providing support) and modelling (whereby older generations intentionally seek to cultivate similar values and behaviour in younger generations). They found stronger evidence for emulation than modelling, thus claiming that altruism was more prevalent than self-interest.

There has certainly been considerable discussion about the motivations behind financial transfers, but there has been very little evidence of how inter-generational transfers are financed by the donors. Income and financial assets are no doubt among the sources parents draw on to aid their children, but there may also be a trend towards using housing wealth. Research by Overton (2010) on the use of equity release products among older people revealed that just over a quarter of the 553 equity release customers surveyed had drawn on their housing wealth to help out or treat family members. This particular group were more likely than other respondents to have savings and investments, higher incomes and more valuable homes than those who were using the products to meet their own welfare needs. With demographic shifts affecting the timing of inheritance, equity release provides a mechanism for overcoming delays in financial transfers, and the opportunity for (some) parents to support their children when they need it most. However, if parents pass on substantial sums before they die, there is the risk that they will be poorly placed to fund their own income and welfare needs later on in retirement.

Transfers might also be financed through Mortgage Equity Withdrawal (MEW). MEW can take place by over-mortgaging, remortgaging and/or by taking out further advances (Smith and Vass 2004). Again, however, the increased fungibility of housing wealth might offer home owners greater opportunities for supporting their children, but it also increases the likelihood of mortgage debt being extended into retirement. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that growing numbers of people are approaching retirement with outstanding debts and that those who have debt in retirement now owe considerably more than they did 10 to 15 years ago (McKay et al. 2008).

Another related and important strand of academic work here has focused on the nature of family norms and ‘obligations’ around care as well as financial support (Finch and Mason 1991, 1993; Brannen 2003, 2006; Brannen et al. 2004). To what extent do people agree or disagree about how families should support each other? And are such values shared by family members and perhaps even transmitted down generations? Finch and Mason (1993) argued that there were very few fixed norms here but that families went through a process of careful consideration and negotiation when making decisions on supporting each other. Motivated by the desire to ‘do the right thing’ in each particular case, family members would draw on a similar repertoire of principles, such as the nature and degree of need and the ability to help. These principles would be the key guide to applied in each case rather than determining.

A key issue for Finch and Mason (1991) was what level of agreement could be considered as a ‘consensus’. They argued that this should be related to the number of choices people had been given. Where there were two options, they argued that, if more than 51 per cent of respondents chose one option this would provide a simple majority, but if 75 per cent or more chose one option, this would constitute ‘a notable level of agreement’. For a three-option question, the corresponding figure would be 50 per cent and, for a four-option question, the ‘notable level of agreement’ or ‘consensus baseline’ would be if one option were chosen by 37.5 per cent. But Finch and Mason (1991) accepted that these were rather arbitrary thresholds. This raises a fundamental issue about what might be counted as a ‘consensus’ or an agreement between people. There has been very little discussion of this, though McKay (2004) has considered how researchers might measure the degree of consensus among a sample, in this instance, in terms of what people consider to be necessities of life (consensual deprivation indicators). He has argued that research, to date, has over-estimated the level of consensus about what constitutes a necessity due to the statistical measures used.

In the Finch and Mason study, 53 per cent of 69 normative survey questions met their criteria for a ‘notable level of agreement’ or ‘consensus baseline’. Finch and Mason (1991) therefore argued that there was relatively little agreement between people on whether or not particular cases should be given help of different kinds by family members. They also found that the demographic characteristics of respondents were not as closely linked to people’s views on the vignettes as various other factors relating to the vignettes themselves such as the particular circumstances in question. The key factors that people, generally, appeared to take into account when forming judgements were issues such as: how deserving is the case?; how much is the person in need?; is it for a luxury or a necessity?; and how much support do they need? Their main conclusion was that, when asked why they had taken a particular opinion on a vignette, many respondents gave similar reasons for supporting different opinions. Thus there was a consensus about the factors to take into account but an absence of ‘norms’ about how to apply these factors in any particular case.

Finch and Mason (1991) also found that people’s views about support in relation to personal care and accommodation were not related very closely to their own reported experience, but personal experience seemed much more relevant on questions about money. In other words, there was a correlation between reported experience of giving and receiving money and taking a more positive stance towards financial assistance between relatives.

In relation to the second assumption listed above about whether or not obligations are stronger for closer kin relations, Finch and Mason (1991) found that parent-child obligations did feature strongly in the data but that people did not treat them as unconditional. Other factors, including one’s own needs before supporting others, were considered important. In relation to gendered obligations, the Finch and Mason survey showed that financial support was more commonly seen as a male obligation whereas the provision of accommodation and care more commonly a female obligation.

Finch and Mason’s work (1990) discusses ‘moral dimensions’ rather than ‘norms’ since the latter term suggests fixed obligations and rigid behavioural rather than more fluid and negotiable relationships linked to context and contingency. This echoes Bourdieu (1977) who characterised kin relations as something people ‘make’ and ‘do’ something with. Sanghera et al. (2011: 171) have also suggested that the concept of habitus (Bourdieu 1990) effectively portrays people as ‘strategic improvisers’. While the focus on individuals as reflexive negotiators is helpful, Sanghera et al. (2011: 172) argue that such a focus should not be used to portray people solely as seeking to maximise their self-interest as this would underplay the importance of ‘ethical, disinterested and emotional responses’. As well as seeing individuals as being motivated by power and status, they argue, following Sayer (2005), that individuals also search for ‘the good’. An understanding of ‘lay moral judgements’, responsibilities and sentiments is therefore important, they argue, to provide a more holistic understanding of kinship responsibilities and relationships (Nussbaum 2000; Sayer 2005; Sanghera et al. 2011).

In a similar vein, Silverstein et al. (2012) have proposed the use of a new concept, moral capital, to incorporate discussion of both exchange motivations (altruism, self-interest and reciprocity) and normative- integrative models (solidarity, conflict and ambivalence). They have claimed that moral capital can help ‘resolve the paradox of how selfinterest and selflessness can co-exist within families’ (2012: 1246). For example, Silverstein et al. (2012) have argued that existing theories fail to explain why younger generations may support older generations even when their relationship with their relative is poor and they have had little support themselves in the past and expect to receive little in the future. Drawing on Mauss (1923/1967), Silverstein et al. (2012) have argued that this can be explained by the importance of moral obligations over pecuniary motives for the exchange of resources. They have therefore characterised the socialisation of children as a moral capital investment and the family as a moral economy. The authors concluded that ‘moral capital exists in the space between strategic investments (by parents) and simple altruism (of children)’ and thus ‘bridges the disciplinary and theo?retical divides in the study of inter-generational transfers’ (2012: 1259). While the concept certainly provides a valuable new perspective to the debate, the exact nature of the relationship between exchange motivations, normative-integrative models and moral capital requires further consideration and empirical investigation.

 
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