Intergenerational Contract for filial relations- Need or not?

Mariam Tariq
9 min readApr 10, 2022

Civilizations are unique societal structures that are marked by the pillars of social stratification, trade, urban development, some form of leadership and efficient system of communication that marked itself different from the peripatetic and migrant lifestyle by settling themselves in a centralized manner. The hunter gatherers or the neolithic societies transcended themselves into the organized structures usually by the banks of rivers. The Asian subcontinent was the focal point of the largest and most functional civilizations of the world. The earliest civilizations included Mesopotamia in modern day Iraq, Indus Valley in India and Ancient China, roughly around between 4000 to 3000 BC. Considering Asia as the hubspot of the largest civilization, the settlers had a tendency to hand down their legacy to future generations, this was a crucial reason for venerating filial ties and setting them as the foundation of social structures.

With passing time, this social structure became more advanced and gave birth to various religions, Asia embraced all cultural and religious traditions. Today, Asia with its interwebbed history of culture including various religions, their subsects, myriad languages and dialects, disparate economic and development pathways has still stood the test of time. Even in its socio- cultural heterogeneity, there is a sense of concordance that coincides on filial ties and bonds. A principal feature of all asian families is the reverence towards elders/ older generations. The necessity to feel an obligation towards taking care of parents/ elders before child or self care. This impetus given to older generations is the reason why huge family trees still exist even after being functional and yet dysfunctional both at the same time. The practice of passing down legacy in some way inculcated a sense of indebtedness and obligation instead of a mutual respect and understanding for each other.

Today with modernization and urbanization, the biggest threat that inhabitants of the Asian subcontinent feel is that collective familial interests will take a back seat and sense of filial obligation will erode leading to more nuclear and disjointed families rather than the huge family tree that used to make a stronghold of the soil it used to stand in. From as trivial as reducing family members at the dinner table to acclimating to the practice of old age homes, makes a huge cry for help and intergenerational contracts are the only solution to make this transaction of respect and reverence mutual between the age hierarchies or generations. The fear that western influence, the aspiration for a better lifestyle, upholding sense of privacy and personal time will force time honored filial relationships to take a back seat. There is a need for a new negotiation between the age generations in a manner that reinterprets and accommodates relationships, privacy, a forward movement towards understanding the concept of privacy and self care before family care.

Image Credit: Kacso Sandor

A careful diagnosis of the problem at hand needs to be addressed, bearing in mind the myriad ethnicities, religious beliefs, developmental rates of the different parts of the Asian subcontinent but still at the same time accommodating the needs and requirements of old as well as new generations is required. The Hindu Sanskrit epic of Mahabharat narrates the story of Shravana Kumara who was a dutiful son known for his filial piety towards his parents, was killed accidentally by King Dasharatha. This intergenerational contract aims at finding the modern day solution to the fear of losing their Shravana Kumara and at the same time finding a way to incorporate familial exclusion.

What is at risk?

With the progression of time, what seems to be hanging at risk are the fundamentals laid down by the age-old East Asian proverb, “a generation plants the trees in whose shade another generation rests.” The population in WHO South-East Asia Region is aging rapidly. While the proportion of people aged 60 or above was 9.8% in 2017, it will be increased to 13.7% and 20.3% by 2030 and by 2050. With this increase in the percentage of elderly, it is imperative that the governments across the region for-see the repercussions associated with the widening gap between generations. The cost of a child’s education and marriage has been increasing exponentially driven by increased parental investment and gamut of options available to children. This has paved way to an unsaid rivalry between two generations for a share of family’s resources.The obvious rise in resource transfers to the younger generation, as well as the accompanying rivalry for resources across generations, had the inevitable impact that a generation before us strongly felt that their own privileges and expectations of assistance were under threat.

Intertwined intergenerational problems

Poverty has always been analyzed and studied in silos, viewing poor as a monolithic group or statistic but the nature of poverty could be better understood and solved if an intergenerational analysis is applied. The NGO HelpAge International argues that “poverty experienced in adulthood is likely to deepen with age, and this in turn has an intergenerational impact within households”. Poverty reduction efforts that do not examine poverty in a framework that goes beyond individual age groups are likely to fail because just one aspect of the problem is addressed.

Regardless of the fact that the great majority of elderly people are deeply invested in preserving intergenerational transfers in the social and economic sectors, social policies have tended to reinforce and sustain the conventional image of elderly adults as passive dependents in multigenerational households. This act of transferring wealth from one generation to another has resulted in immense structural damage involving physical and psychological abuse of older people who have legal custody of property.

State Intervention

The help provided by the state in East, South and South-East Asia remains limited to providing minimum social support and security only to those who do not have any surviving family and are in urgent need of help. This support is limited to subsidies and only in certain cases old-age residential care. While there are developed countries where the state support is more developed and mature, as in China, Singapore and Hong Kong, even these countries believe that it is the duty of the family to provide the primary support needed. In practice, governments have taken or are contemplating taking steps to build auxiliary services like old-age-care centers, or to implement family tax incentives and subsidies to help elderly. Several Indian cities have particular arrangements in place for housing distribution to intergenerational families or to enable close-proximity living. However, such programmes which are not cost-effective are unlikely to be extensively adopted in the foreseeable future. All of this proves that with the birth of new social challenges, the states not only are incapable but are also questioning their fundamental capacity to support an entire generation because of its cost prohibitive structure and the transition post the crisis which occurred due to COVID-19. Across Asia, social welfare programmes place a premium on family care and require the younger generation to assist the old, resulting in a system based on “family care first.” It is because of this single and unambiguous assumption that the preservation of intergenerational resource transfers from younger to older generations is of continuous and vital importance.

The Road ahead

The overall policy making process should specifically take into account the structural components which are involved in the entire intergenerational process of transferring wealth. Precise actions are needed to ensure that all the disaggregated information and statistics represent the needs and the issue and the perspectives of various social groups.More precise and reliable statistics on the position of adolescents and elderly people, particularly in terms of poverty, will aid policymakers in ensuring that those groups’ needs are not overlooked. Disaggregated data might help policymakers gain a deeper understanding of how adolescents and elderly adults endure poverty, as well as if their experiences vary from those of the different groups.

The need of the hour is to devise frameworks which have an age integrated approach. We no longer have a three generational structure but the branches expanding to four and five generations and its impact on each other is way more complex to boil it down to “one policy for all”. The developing countries in Asia should cut down their time spent on focusing on the costs of an aging population. The thoughts should be channelized to develop opportunities which promote the economic and social participation from multigenerational households. The fundamental principle of exchange and reciprocation should be enhanced to strengthen the existing support structure.

The societal framework of each state has been changing over years which requires a dynamism in policies that are devised. Though families want state sponsored support but due to it’s high cost structures, it is unlikely that the governments across the continent would be willing to spend on supporting an entire generation. Policies which bolster the age old tradition of values, minimizing the load on the state can move the needle. This would include providing tax and monetary incentives to people supporting the elders and supporting the agencies who are into providing daycare centers, old age homes and health facilities.

The existing intergenerational contract will have to be reinterpreted and renegotiated, by acknowledging a more symmetric flow of resources for both the generations. The contract ought to be reciprocatory keeping in mind the needs of both the generations. This two way flow of resources would refute the age-old notion of unidirectional shift in resource flow, but will also mark a reduction in the gender and age hierarchies, which has always been a stamp of authentication of Asian intra-familial relations. The updated contract would demand an investment from each generation, by becoming a “resource” for the other, this would not only bridge the generational gap and the historical gap that has existed between siblings but would also decrease the difference between separated households. The flow of resources would be in shorter cycles with parents providing monetary support for education and health of the younger children and in turn the elder children providing old age care and help.

You reap what you sow

Ethnographic studies and social surveys in various parts of Asia suggest that there has been a huge schism between the generations due to the influence and acquisition of new values, attitudes and behaviors. The dwindling fertility rates and proliferating numbers of aging people across Asia has given rise to governmental concerns. With about 90 million people in China and 76 million in India, above 65 years, the continent is home to the highest number of people in the elderly age bracket. And with increasing life expectancy, there will be a stability in these numbers. In these circumstances, most countries have projected dependency ratios that

are increasingly unfavorable to the elderly, with the most extreme example in urban China, where the single-child family results in a 4: 2: 1 ratio, with one child likely to support two parents and four grandparents. With such demographics and considering the fact that most Asian countries are third world nations, we have to doubt their rate of development and finance sponsored by the state.Hence it is unlikely that there will be any state introduced changes in this regard from most countries. Although, governments have introduced a variety of supplementary options like old age homes and day care centers yet these are far too costly for most nations in Asia.

Although most of the aforementioned problems like loss of labor, lowered skillset range amongst youth flow of resources seem like the actionable points to bring about a balance between generations, instead solving these problems in a particular generation will actually help in solving the intergenerational issues in a far more efficient way. The resilience of a “modernized” intergenerational contract with simultaneous and shorter cyclical resource flows not only defies previous analytical approaches that forecast the decline of filial resource flows, but also raises fundamental questions as to the meanings widely assumed of, and globally attributed to, the very process of development or modernization itself. For Asia, it might be concluded that development and modernization strategies remain family based, anchoring care of the aged and of the young centrally within the family, and have reaffirmed the importance of an intergenerational contract so that filial and familial obligations have been renegotiated and reinterpreted to accommodate changes in the distinctive socio-cultural context that is Asia today.

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Mariam Tariq

Grad student• Product Manager• Product Designer I am trying to learn how to believe in myself more, one day at a time.