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When in Rome

Similarities, rather than differences, characterise parent-child support among migrants and non-migrants

When in Rome
Copyright: Caftor

by Helga de Valk and Valeria Bordone

As our societies age, adult sons and daughters must increasingly balance their own lives with the needs of their ageing parents. They must reconcile the preferences of their parents with their institutional setting—that junction between policies and cultural expectations. A quick look at our own lives, and it’s easy to see that always making the “right” decisions can quickly get complicated for anyone.

By migrating, an individual removes herself from the institutional setting shaped by her culture, thus adding a layer of complexity. In the case of migrants in Europe, this often means moving from a setting in which public assistance for intergenerational support is weak and, consequently, reliance on family networks is high, to one characterized by moderately to highly developed welfare systems.

Two contradictory explanations have emerged to explain what happens next: a) unfamiliar with, or excluded from, the new public welfare mechanisms, migrants lean harder on immediate family for practical and associational support, or; b) migrant families provide less intergenerational support because of the disruptive effect migration can have on family bonds.

To figure out which it is, Valeria Bordone and I compared in a recent article migrants and majority populations in the countries of settlement. Do migrant families offer more intergenerational support than their new neighbours? Or, cut off, do they offer less?


Doing as the Romans do

Looking specifically at practical “upward” intergenerational support—or support from children to their parents—we actually found no significant difference between families of migrant and non-migrant background. Both families tended to provide similar levels of help with, for example, hygiene, cleaning, shopping or paperwork.

Where we did find variation was between countries of residence. By grouping countries of residence (or settlement, as it happens) by welfare state type, we were able to approximate the effects of policy differences on the intergenerational support in migrant and non-migrant families. The distinction turned out to be quite relevant. We found that differences in upward practical support were much more significant between Northern, Central, and Southern Europe than between natives and newcomers there.

Earlier studies have found that migrants adapt to their new environments more quickly in the practical domains of life. Our comparison confirms this. In practical matters, even in a domain as intimate as intergenerational support, it seems we adjust quite adroitly.



Upward practical support is, as you may imagine, only one type of intergenerational support. In our study, we distinguish between: contact (or “associational support”), downward support (from parents to children), and grandparenting (a special form of downward support). We found strong indications that families of migrant origin provide more contact and downward support than families from majority populations, indicating migration does not disrupt associational ties, even as practical adjustments are made.

By revealing the importance of location in the practical domain, the numbers implicitly revealed the influence of policies on care decisions. We would need more country-level data to tease out the details and clearly distinguish between the influence of the culture of a country of settlement and its policies. But the fact that regions defined by policies had a notable effect at all suggests the exercise would be worth the effort.

In the meantime, sons and daughters, parents and grandparents will continue to navigate the maze of norms, policies and expectations to provide the “right” support for their families, no matter where they are.



About the authors:

Helga de Valk, Theme Leader Migration & Migrants, Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute, The Hague/The Netherlands, and Professor of Migration and the Lifecourse at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences, Population Research Center, University of Groningen/The Netherlands.
Valeria Bordone, Lecturer in Gerontology, University of Southampton/UK.


Bordone, V. & H. de Valk (2016): Intergenerational support among migrant families in Europe. European Journal of Ageing 13(3): 259–270.

Bordone, V. & H. de Valk (2016): When in Rome. Similarities, rather than differences, characterise parent-child support among migrants and non-migrants. Berlin: Population Europe.