Family Matters No. 32, 1992

Extended family in Australia


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Content type
Family Matters issue

July 1992


This issue of Family Matters has as its theme intergenerational relationship, the ties that bind.

Director's report

The director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies argues that AIFS findings since 1980 have shown how strong family linkages are across time and that the 'extended family' is alive and well, if in modified new forms. He outlines the Institute's aims for the next few years, which include encouraging a consolidation of intergenerational links, the creation of new forms of cross-age care and support which may better assist those who have no extended family or whose circumstances have left them relatively isolated.

Director's report

Don Edgar

In an article reproduced from The Guardian in The Age (3 June 1992) Liz Hodgkinson called for parents to stop being parents when their children turn 18, claiming that 'by continuing to call our parents Mum and Dad, we prolong the relationship as one of duty and obligation, even though no duty exists any longer on either side'. She deplores the tendency of adult children to raid the fridge, turn on the TV, blithely use the telephone when they visit, and the equally infantile expectation of elderly parents that sons and daughters will do something for them, take them in, buy them a granny flat'.

Such a view of family relationships, where all ties other than an autonomous 'adult' relationship are severed at an early age, strikes me as one of the most destructive and short-sighted views of family life I have seen in years.

This issue of Family Matters has as its theme intergenerational relationships, the ties that bind. These are not only ties of duty and obligation. The beauty of family ties is that they are based most often on love, on the pleasure of giving and receiving, on the sense of security and satisfaction we get from knowing that we can rely on family members in any emergency, at any time. This is not to deny that some pain might be involved, or that some families do not operate that way. But to suggest that some symbolic break is needed in our family relationships before we can be truly adult, or to suggest that we all must call Mum and Dad by their first names and stop feeling guilty if we forget to call them now and then is to deny what is most human about our lives.

Since the Institute began in l980 we have found time and again how strong are family linkages across time and space. One of our first studies was on Family Support Networks, designed to test the then strongly asserted lament that families were no longer 'looking after their own', that they were relying too much on the government for support, that what was needed was more family responsibility and less reliance on the 'welfare state'. That study was first conducted in Geelong and resulted in the book by Jean McCaughey called A Bit of a Struggle. We were astonished to find how strong was the ideology of self-help, of families doing it alone, of not asking government or other services for any kind of support, even when it was sorely needed.

That study was replicated in Darwin and Jabiru because in these remote settings we knew extended family support was less likely to be available and the question of how families coped had to be answered differently. Again we found that family support, by telephone, via financial and other in-kind resources, was very strong. Moreover, friends and neighbours came to act as substitute family members, with different consequences but serving the same purposes of caring and helping. We also replicated the study of family support networks in Ashfield, an inner-city suburb of Sydney. Geelong was a stable provincial centre and we wondered if the same patterns would hold in a heavily ethnic, lower income, more mobile setting. The findings are now published in the book Who Helps? Support Networks and Social Policy in Australia, by Peter d'Abbs (discussed elsewhere in this issue by Ilene Wolcott) and they confirm the strength of families and their intergenerational linkages.

In the 6000 households of the Institute's Australian Living Standards Study we are already finding ample affirmation of the importance of family ties (see Christine Millward's article 'Keeping in Touch' elsewhere in this issue). The big surprise to the 'doomsayers' is that most children actually like their parents, and most parents like their children. In the first area studied (the outer eastern area of Berwick in Melbourne), the bulk of child care is carried out informally by grandmothers and other relatives and there is much reciprocal support between younger and older generations. Perhaps it is time to start asking for programs and policies that will recognise these patterns and offering support within the community to help families thrive or to build substitute support systems for those who are unlucky enough not to have an extended family of their own.

The Institute continues to demonstrate the forward-looking nature of its research program. When questions about youth unemployment (indeed unemployment in general) come up, the Institute has information to inform the debate. As industry and management begin to realise that 'best practice' and industry-based negotiation may be the way to go and that child care is only one of the needs demanded by today's workers, the Institute's work on maternity leave, dependent care leave, family-friendly work practices and employer responses to workers with family responsibilities informs social change. As families suffer the fallout of the recession and the divorce rate rises after a plateau of eight years, our studies of marital values and family stress help clarify the reasons and potentially helpful paths of support.

The huge potential of the Australian Living Standards Study data is being realised as we cover so many spheres of life and have such detailed analyses of support services in so many varied locations. Often we find that a study designed with a specific purpose in mind has several later serendipitous spinoffs because of its unique 'family' perspective. As well, we are finding, as the years roll by, that similar findings emerge from several studies, giving a greater sense of validity to our work. Now that we have been able to follow up our samples in the major longitudinal studies, we are also able to test predictions about behaviour with greater confidence. Ironically, earlier financial cutbacks which delayed some of our planned follow- ups have given a greater time span and thus greater shift in the data than might have been expected with a shorter space between first and second stage interviews. Cross-sectional findings are never totally satisfactory and though a second stage interview is again cross-sectional, we have a better chance of controlling on multiple factors and testing propositions about likely 'causes' of changes in family circumstances.

Our aim in the next two years is to pull together as comprehensive a picture as we can of what our research has shown about Australian families in preparation for the International Year of the Family. This will serve as a basis for widespread community discussion about what is needed to support children and families in their manifestly varied forms.

Part of that aim will be to encourage a consolidation of intergenerational links, the creation of new forms of cross- age care and support which may better assist those who have no extended family or whose circumstances have left them relatively isolated. The Institute has always held that the family does not stop at the front door and that the isolation of people in separate nuclear family units can be a barrier to the truly civil society in which our obligations to 'strangers' are not ignored. What our research is showing is that the 'extended family' is alive and well, if in modified new forms. No family can survive alone, and a caring society needs to generate new linkages which match the new forms of family and work life that are emerging.


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Meredith Michie

Assistant Editor

Claire Miller

Publications Committee

Helen Brownlee, Don Edgar, Peter McDonald, Meredith Michie, Claire Miller, Gay Ochiltree, Liz Sharman and Ilene Wolcott.