The Changing Shape of Families

The ageing of New Zealand society is a well-recognised fact. By 2031, not much more than ten years away, Statistics New Zealand predict that people aged 65 plus will represent one-fifth of the population.


We have heard a lot about what this will mean for income support, care and specialised housing. We hear less about how the “shape” of families will change. Increased life expectancy and lower birth rates have resulted in “bean-pole” families – with more generations alive at one time than previously, but fewer individuals in each generation. Thus the family tree will more easily fit the “portrait” rather than the “landscape” display mode.


So if we assume, just for the sake of argument, that old age begins at 65, then it can span more than one generation. The oldest people alive today were born in the years just after the end of the First World War.  The youngest of the 65 plus cohort were born in the 1950s and are very likely to be the children of the oldest group. We have only to consider the different life experiences of these two generations to realise the great diversity which exists among the older population – a diversity which is often unacknowledged in popular stereotypes, which lump everyone aged 65 plus together.


Demographers call this phenomenon, rather unkindly, “two generation geriatric families “. A good example of this has been the British royal family, when the Queen Mother was alive, and the same phenomenon is repeating itself with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles!


At present half of the people entering what is sometimes called the “retirement age” have a parent still living. With increases in life expectancy, we can predict that even more will be in this position in the future, despite later child-bearing and consequently a wider gap between the generations. The implications are many. Retirees may find themselves with caring responsibilities for dependent older people just at a stage when they expected to be enjoying increased leisure. If they themselves have serious health problems (albeit less common among the “young-old”) this may place a double burden on the generation which follows. They may be called upon to support both their parents and their grandparents. And not only will this generation be smaller in numbers, but the consequences of marriage breakdown may mean that family members have lost touch with one another.


When people dying in their nineties or hundreds leave their worldly goods to their children, these “children” may be well into their retirement. How then will inheritance be viewed?  Instead of financing tertiary education or house purchase it may be seen as a retirement nest egg. Moreover, the potential heirs, of whatever age, may be faced with a trade-off – either they provide care for their older people and inherit, or they face the prospect of the assets, including money tied up in houses, being used up to pay for care.


What about this worst-case scenario?


You are 90, and looking after your parents, who are 120, when your 60 year old child comes back home again.


By Judith Davey. First appeared on Age Concern New Zealand website.

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