The Pattern of Dependence

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One common perception of aging in America is that the older you get, the more dependent you are on your children. Making do on a fixed income, coping with increasing health problems and decreasing energy, it's only natural to think of senior citizens as the needy ones.

But the reality is much more complicated, according to a three-year series of studies by Americans Discuss Social Security, a group funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to raise the level of discussion of Social Security. There is a great deal of dependency in America, especially within families, but it is not simply a case of the old depending on the young. In fact, a lot of adults lean on their parents long past their teen years.

The ADSS studies have covered attitudes about many aspects of family life and public policy. But some of the most interesting findings have come from an unusual effort to interview parents and their adult children about the nature of their relationships. First, a random sample of adults with at least one parent living was interviewed in depth. Then the parents of those interviewed in the first poll were, in turn, interviewed. This data set opens a fascinating window into the complexity of life in the U.S. today.

Looking across all age groups, U.S. adults are more likely to say they depend on their parents than they are to say their parents depend on them. Of Americans with at least one parent still living, about a third (34 percent) admit to being more dependent on their parents than the other way around. Twenty-eight percent say that their parents depend more on them. Fifteen percent say it is an equal exchange. And then there are 22 percent who say they don't depend on each other at all.

Questions that probed issues of financial dependence and help in getting through everyday life showed similar results. Clearly, the web of relationships that we call family continues to be very important, even after the children have left home, gone to college, or started their own families.

As one would expect, the youngest adults rely on their parents the most - and the oldest parents are the most dependent on their children. More than two-thirds of the adults age 18 to 24 (69 percent) say they are more dependent on their parents. Only 8 percent say their parents depend more on them. Conversely, for those adult children 65 years of age and older, 57 percent say their parents are more dependent on them, while only 4 percent admit to depending on their parents more. What's the tipping point? It is not until the children reach their mid-40s or so that more say their parents are dependent.

Those are the kids' views - even if the kids are now 60 years old! But what do the parents think? Actually there is some substantial agreement among the two groups. About the same portion of parents (29 percent) say their children are more dependent on them as the total number of adult children who admit to continued dependence (34 percent, as mentioned above). And about the same portion of parents (18 percent) as children (15 percent) say they depend equally on each other.

But only 16 percent of the parents admit to being more dependent, a sharp contrast to the 28 percent that the children see. More than a third of the parents (37 percent) see no dependence either way, while 22 percent of the children agree with that.

Clearly, dependency in American families is in the eye of the beholder. This is the reality in the 1990s, one which is likely to shape how decisions are made when thinking about such issues as the future of Social Security, Medicare, and yes, even day care.

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