The Effects of Ageing on Intergenerational Support Exchange: A New Look at the Hypothesis of Flow Reversal

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review


There has been debate about whether the flow of intergenerational support reverses as parents age. One view is that in western countries, parents remain ‘net donors’ to children, even in very old age. Such a conclusion coincides with notions of parental altruism and would be in contrast to notions of exchange and reciprocity over the life course. This paper examines the thesis of flow reversal in a new way: it uses prospective longitudinal data, it combines data from samples of ageing parents and samples of adult children, it develops a way to create measures of balance from frequency items on support exchange, and it combines objective measures of support exchange with subjective perceptions of symmetry. The focus is limited to support that involves time and effort. The support that parents give to children declines with age, the support they receive increases, and at around age 75–76, parents become ‘net receivers’. The decline in downward support is stronger than the increase in upward support, suggesting that declining parental opportunities to give plays an important role in the flow reversal. In sum, the analyses provide evidence for what we can call delayed and parent-driven flow reversal. Evidence for flow reversal is stronger in the sample of adult children, pointing to the limitations of sampling ageing parents. Finally, there is correspondence between objective measures of support exchange and perceptions of symmetry, although on the whole, few parents regard themselves as ‘net receivers’.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)263–284
JournalEuropean Journal of Population
Early online date09 Apr 2018
Publication statusPublished - May 2019


  • intergenerational relationships
  • ageing
  • life course
  • family
  • social exchange

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