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New research by Anna Manzoni and Jane Lee published in Sociological Perspectives challenges the notion of complete independence as a necessary marker of adulthood. The two researchers examine how parents and children exchange both financial and housing resources over their lives, and how those exchanges often flow in both directions.

The interview below was conducted with Manzoni, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at North Carolina State University. She is also external faculty affiliate at the Carolina Population Center. Lee, who is a research analyst in the Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research at Duke University, also contributed to this interview.

Your paper examines patterns of intergenerational support in the United States, where there has traditionally been a strong individualistic ethos. What kinds of intergenerational support did you look at?

We specifically examined patterns of financial and residential support from parents to their adult children, and from adult children to their parents. Residential support captures living arrangements, distinguishing whether parents and children live together, and in whose house. Financial support refers to cash transfers, paying for living or other expenses, as well as contribution to room and board.

How did those forms of support change as children (and their parents) got older?

Overall, we find six different pathways or patterns of intergenerational support that are most common among adults between the ages 18 and 43. Of these six pathways, three (comprising about 63% of the sample) trend towards decreasing support exchanged between parents and their adult children over their life course. In contrast, the other three pathways (comprising about 37% of the sample) indicate that exchanges of financial and residential support are common throughout adulthood, sometimes at high levels and increasing based on need.

Did anything surprise you about the findings?

Popular accounts of the “failure to launch” depict adults as continually depending on their parents unilaterally for extended periods. On the contrary, we found that patterns of financial exchange often flow in both directions between parents and children. In three of the six pathways of support we identified, the probabilities of financial support from parents to children follow a similar pattern as the probabilities of financial support from adult children to parents.

How did pathways of interdependence vary by gender, race/ethnicity, and educational backgrounds?

We find that pathways that trend towards independence (with less exchange of intergenerational support) are more common among White families and parents with higher educational backgrounds. Interestingly, we also find that men are more likely than women to continue receiving financial and residential support from their parents into adulthood.