An item from the Global Times of Beijing:
On Dec. 28 , China passed a law requiring adult children to visit their elderly parents “often,” or risk repercussions. The law is a response to the increasing difficulty of caring for an aging population that will reach 200 million this year. The law does not specify the number of required visits or possible punishments.
American social historians and sociologists have devoted much time to studying Americans’ ties to their elderly parents – a way of assessing what may have changed in family feelings and family values over the generations, and also, it turns out, of assessing how government policies affect family life. We haven’t reached — and are unlikely to — the Chinese condition.
Centuries ago, the whole issue of caring for aged parents was moot for many Americans because their parents did not live that long; the average woman of the revolutionary era would have already buried both of her parents by the time she reached middle age. Also, there were usually a number of siblings to help shoulder the burden if parents did survive. In the twenty-first century, with Americans living longer and bearing fewer children, there are more elderly people and each one has fewer offspring to watch out for him or her. The issue became more pressing here as it has now become in China. 
In the long-ago past, most Americans lived and made their livings on farms, which complicated relations between aging parents and maturing children. Farmers and farm wives needed help doing the work – plowing, harvesting, collecting eggs, churning butter, and the like – and needed yet more help as their bodies deteriorated. At the same time, growing sons needed to own farms so as to establish themselves and growing daughters needed established young men living nearby to marry. When things worked well (for example, when there was enough land to leave to more than one son), the practicalities of farm life may have strengthened family ties. Parents handed off the farm to an adult son, perhaps a bit of money to another son, and settled back into a dignified retirement on the property. Often, probably most often, things were not so smooth — impatient sons left early, daughters had to forsake marriage to care for declining parents, farms went bust, siblings squabbled, and so on.
One tactic families often used to handle the generational transition was to sign explicit contracts. In early America, such documents stipulated that the father would deed land to the son in return for a specified annual payment (say, “120 pounds of pork, 2 barrels of cider”) after the elder’s retirement. Occasionally in our era, a family business may complicate parental (or sibling) ties. But for most Americans, the relationships are, for better or for worse, spared business complications. (Whether economic interdependence improves or detracts from intimate relations is debated in the social science literature.) Money, however, still plays a role in parent-child ties.
In that older, rural era, elderly parents had a key asset, the farm, to give to their children – but not much else. In the industrial era, elderly parents had not even that. As their bodies broke down, what they could “trade” for their children’s help diminished. The problem of the aged poor who either had no children or who had children unable or unwilling to care for them grew into a major social problem. The poorhouses of the nineteenth century were to a great extent old-age homes. (Might the local governments which bore the costs have wished that they could require filial loyalty as the Chinese have?)
Two major changes occurred in the twentieth century – and especially since 1960 – that turned the balance of need upside down. One was the general economic growth of the nation that raised incomes, savings, pensions, and home ownership. The other was the development of government old-age support, particularly Social Security and Medicare. In 1960, Americans over 65 were twice as likely to be poor as 18-to-64 year-olds; by the 2000s, they were less likely to be poor (see this earlier post). The increasing affluence of the elderly is at least part of the reason, along with declining birth rates, that so many more of them can now live on their own – either as empty-nest couples or as widow(ers) (see this earlier post).
Sharing the Wealth
Even without a government directive, American parents and adult children give one another considerable help. A 2005 survey found that at least three-quarters of young adults got some financial help from their parents, that over half got more than $1,000 a year, and that aging parents gave their adult children about 10 percent of their own income. In a 2007 survey, a large majority of American adults reported giving either financial or personal assistance to a parent or said that they expected to do so. The data to track these exchanges over the years are not available, but one expert suggests that smaller family sizes and longer delays in marrying probably increased the volume of parent-child mutual support. 
Despite the conventional wisdom that Americans’ concern for their aged parents has slumped, there is not much evidence of that. True, over the twentieth century, grown-up Americans were less and less likely to live with their parents (until the current economic crisis), but over the last few decades, the frequency with which people saw and communicated with their parents changed little. 
And I haven’t seen evidence of any diminishment in affection. For example, the World Values Survey has occasionally asked respondents around the globe, “With which of these two statements do you tend to agree?: A. Regardless of what the qualities and faults of one’s parents are, one must always love and respect them; B. One does not have the duty to respect and love parents who have not earned it by their behavior and attitudes.” Between 1982 and 1999, with trivial variation, about 75 percent of Americans picked the first option, “one must always love and respect,” considerably more often than other westerners did.  And ironically, Americans – especially younger ones – have increasingly endorsed the idea of the elderly living with their grown children. The General Social Survey asks, “As you know, many older people share a home with their grown children. Do you think this is generally a good idea or a bad idea?” In the 1970s, about 40 percent of respondents aged 18 to 59 thought it was a good idea; in the 2000s, 55 percent did. (Among the 60+ respondents, the percentage approving rose from about 25 to about 35.) I interpret this endorsement not as a practical answer – the elderly remain skeptical of the idea – but as a sentimental one, an expression of good feeling toward the parental generation. 
The Chinese directive suggests that the Party wants individuals to carry more of the burden of caring for the elderly rather, it seems, than the state doing so. Ironically, American conservatives have historically argued in the same vein, complaining that government “crowded out” private support for the needy. (Historically, “filled a vacuum” would be more accurate.) The lesson of the American case is that government action seems to have loosened the forced ties between generations, making their relationships, for better or for worse, a matter of joint desire.
…………….. Notes …………….
 Items in this post are drawn from Made in America, unless otherwise noted. Lifespan: Between 1900 and 2000, the additional years a 65-year-old could expect to live went from about 10 to about 18.
 See discussion in Ch. 5 of Fischer, Still Connected.
 Ch. 3 of Still Connected.
 Still Connected, Ch. 5.
 pp. 92-93 of Fischer and Hout, Century of Difference, updated.