Organisation of households: Changing household structures and dependency

Organisation of households: Changing household structures and dependency

Phuah Eng Chye (3 March 2018)

While there is considerable analysis on the direct effects of demographic aging and shrinking populations, less attention is paid to the economic and social effects from changing household structures. In this regard, traditional household organisation consisted mainly of large families with simple, hierarchical structures. The patterns of household organisation have started to diversify with the emergence of more modular, complex structures.

Sarah Harper and Mark Walport note the “evolving pattern of change in the nature of family structures, roles and relationships. Attitudes are changing towards marriage, cohabitation, single parenthood, divorce and childlessness. Marriage is no longer regarded as the only framework in which it is possible to live as a family and to have children. The result is that, while the marriage is still the dominant form of family, families are becoming increasingly heterogeneous and complex in size, character and location.”

In particular, the trend has been towards “individualisation (rising patterns of cohabitation, divorce, fewer children, lone parenting)”. Sarah Harper and Mark Walport observes “lone parenthood comes either from never having partnered, having separated/divorced or being widowed…In the UK these are more likely to involve early births, often unintended and outside marriage…Historically, widowhood was the most common path into a step-family; today, single parenthood, separation or divorce, are the main pathways. In addition, step-father families – where the children reside with the mother and step-father – are now much more common than in the past, where death in childbirth usually removed the mother and the children were brought up by a step-mother.”

Sarah Harper and Mark Walport note the “shift to a low mortality society leads to an increase in the number of living generations, a process known as the verticalisation of family structures. The result is that most individuals will spend some time as part of a three or four-generation family.” They add “the rising mean age of first birth means there will also be longer gaps between the generations. This trend is related to increasingly delayed life course transitions, such as full economic independence from parents, formal adult union through marriage or committed long-term cohabitation and purchasing of an independent home. Falling fertility means that verticalisation and the delay in life course transitions take place in parallel to a decrease in the number of living relatives within each generation – a reduction in horizontal familial relationships. In summary, we will see an increase in the number of living generations, but a decrease in the absolute number of living relatives.”

The changes in household structures have significant implications for dependency support. Sarah Harper and Mark Walport suggests “an important policy issue is how traditional assumptions of care and support in later life hold for the growing plurality of family structures…US research, for example, has suggested that parental divorce and step-family formation has negative effects on the support that adult children provide to their parents in old age. In addition, there is a strong gender dynamic with adult children having lower contact with divorced fathers and higher contact with divorced mothers when compared with married parents, so that divorced fathers (in the US at least) receive the lowest level of personal care from their children.”

They highlight “a related, unresolved, question is how the future care needs of older people without children can be met within communities and society. This question is also important for those people whose children have care needs themselves, or whose children are unable to offer unpaid care due to health, wealth, family relationships or distance. Evidence from the Netherlands suggests that while childless older people have smaller care networks, they have more disposable income with which to purchase paid care. Furthermore, it may be argued that childless individuals adapt across the life course and develop social alternatives to children.”

Sarah Harper and Mark Walport point to the “tensions between increasing expectations of families to care for dependent members and the capacity to care. This is partly because increased longevity may increase the duration spent by individuals in certain roles like spouse, parent, child or sibling, including the financial and personal obligations expected in those roles. Partly this is also because dependency and obligations will be focused on a smaller group of individuals, as horizontal family support structures – including the numbers or existence of siblings, cousins and extended family – shrink across the population…These effects are likely to be transmitted from one generation to the next.”

They also note there are consequences as “caring for an elderly family member in mid-life can impact upon an individual’s earning capacity. Career interruptions or part-time work due to child or elder care currently reduce pension entitlements with consequences for income in later life. The provision of care is a significant factor in withdrawing from the labour market, and family carers can experience detrimental effects on their health, particularly when little support is available, and particularly in later life. Some grandparents who raise their own grandchildren also report experiences of isolation, discrimination (seen as too old to care) and a lack of support (financial and practical).”

“While these inter-generational impacts can affect all individuals of all ages, there are certain at risk groups. The current generation of 50-70 year olds are sometimes referred to as the sandwich generation, squeezed between competing demands, caring for their own parents and their children or grandchildren. As noted above, daughters across all age groups tend to be more heavily involved than sons in providing support to ageing parents, with implications for stress, ill-health, employment, earnings and pension provision in their own later life.”

Overall, an aging population raises concern because it augurs rising dependency and increasing stress on the public welfare system. However, changing household organisation and the shrinking household sizes has economic and social effects that extends well beyond dependency which will be covered in the forthcoming articles.


Sarah Harper, Mark Walport (July 2016) Future of an ageing population. Government Office for Science. Foresight.


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