The baby boomers, regularly of interest to demographers for their trendsetting ways, may be at the forefront of yet another phenomenon. Despite their numbers, baby boomers have had relatively few children, sparking concern that those who may need care or assistance in advanced age will have a small circle of immediate family to draw on.
But a new and innovative analysis by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that the concept of family for the elderly of the 21st century will be very different from the makeup of families of the elderly today. Unprecedented rates of divorce and remarriage are already redefining families of baby boomers. When the boomers become the elderly of the future, they will have impressive numbers of stepchildren and stepgrandchildren, expanding the numbers of family members on whom the disabled may rely, if needed. For the younger generation, these changes in family structure could increase the potential for caregiving responsibilities but also offer more opportunity to share any burdens among siblings. The analysis suggests that there may be a need to reconsider traditional views of support ratios for retirement and long-term care and to look more closely at the dynamics of intergenerational relationships generally.
Berkeley researcher Kenneth W. Wachter, Ph.D., examined the makeup of future families in the December 29, 1997, British Royal Society journal Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) supported Wachter's research and funds Berkeley's Demography of Aging Center.
Disability rates among older people are on the decline. But rapid growth is expected in the sheer number of the very elderly, those 85 and older, who are most in need of help. This group is expected to reach at least 7 million in 2020, and to at least double again in size by 2040, when the first baby boomers reach age 85. "The informal family network is the mainstay of long-term care of the disabled elderly, and population aging will increase the demand for family caregiving," says Richard M. Suzman, Ph.D., head of the NIA's Office of the Demography of Aging. "This research dramatizes the need for families of the future to adapt in innovative ways."
Wachter used computer microsimulation to examine how many elderly there will be in the next century and the kinds of families of which they will be a part. The technique involves constructing fictional family networks based on historical and current rates of marriage, divorce, remarriage, birth, and death. The scientists create a population of "imaginary" individuals and follow their lives, tracking life events and family ties over time. The current paper, offering projections regarding whites and Hispanics, focuses on the boomers' living children, living grandchildren, people without kin, the children and grandchildren's burden of care, and the age of younger people at a parent's death. Among Wachter's projections:
The relatively low birth rate among baby boomers (themselves born between 1946 and 1964), the so-called "baby lull," will ultimately result in a steep decline in the numbers of elderly people with biological children. Today, 70 to 85 year-olds have on average 2.4 living biological children, but the 70 to 85 year-olds of 2030 will have on average only 1.6 biological children. Adding stepchildren to the mix changes things dramatically. Since 1980, the ratio of biological children to stepchildren for people 70 to 85 has doubled, and is expected to rise by another 50 percent by 2030.
The dramatic change in the numbers, however, is not the whole story. The scientists stress that the simple increase in numbers of people called "family" will not necessarily translate into the willingness or ability to provide support for the elderly. The notion that stepchildren and stepgrandchildren of baby boomers will take on responsibility for their care may be optimistic, Suzman notes, with the multiple responsibilities and geographic dispersion of potential caregivers. Suzman and Wachter agree that examining how these relationships are likely to work in the future is critical, especially in light of a body of research showing that ties of step-relationships are generally much weaker than those of "blood" relatives.
Wachter, however, points to a variety of factors which may influence the future relationship of baby boomers with their stepkin. The future role and importance of stepkin could become considerably closer, he says, as stepfamilies become more the norm, as boomer stepparents invest more time and interest in stepchildren, and as social insurance programs of the future rely even more heavily on the family's role. Says Wachter, "Older people of the next century will be much more familiar with these complex families. Their attitudes and commitments may be very different. In fact, the very shortage of biological kin may enhance the potency of step-ties."
The NIA, part of the National Institutes of Health in the Department of Health and Human Services, leads the Federal effort supporting and conducting biomedical, clinical, social, and behavioral research on aging. NIA supports nine demography centers across the U.S., including the one at Berkeley, looking at population, health, and economic issues related to aging.