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The Importance of Being Family : Pioneering USC Study Finds Intergenerational Relationships Stronger Than Ever

November 03, 1987|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

USC gerontologist Vern L. Bengtson will tell you that reports of the death of the American family are greatly exaggerated.

Indeed, says Bengtson, who has been conducting an ongoing study of 400 three-generation families since 1972, the family as an institution has remained amazingly stable despite the societal upheaval of intervening events: the Vietnam War, Watergate, the civil rights, counterculture and women's movements, and a rocketing divorce rate.

In fact, he speculates that "families are becoming more important in our society . . . and intergenerational relationships are more important . . . today than they have been at any point in history."

Further, Bengtson is convinced that it is "one of the pernicious myths of our time that old people are being shoved off into institutions and left to wither." Three out of four of the oldest generation in the USC study reported almost daily contact, either personal or by telephone, with younger family members.

Bengtson and co-principal investigator USC psychologist Margaret Gatz did find evidence of fallout from the tumultuous '60s that continues to affect Americans across intergenerational lines, specifically a heightened appreciation of individuality and a concern for relatedness and relationships that Bengtson sees as an outgrowth of the touchy-feely movement.

But, while there are real differences in attitudes, opinions and values among the generations, researchers identified elderly liberals as well as young conservatives and, Bengtson said, found that "within families there's a lot more similarity than children will ever admit to their parents."

Friendship and Accomplishment

In one study section, for example, respondents were asked to rank in importance (1) an exciting life, (2) working for social justice for all, (3) a sense of accomplishment, (4) financial comfort, (5) respect or recognition from others, (6) religious participation, (7) service to mankind and (8) friendship. All three generations ranked friendship and accomplishment either first or second.

When, in 1985, family life was added as a choice, all three generations ranked it either fourth or fifth. Respondents were then asked to rank in importance (1) an attractive appearance, (2) a world at peace, (3) loyalty to your own, (4) an ethical life, (5) possessions, (6) patriotism, (7) personal freedom and (8) skill. In both studies, all three generations ranked loyalty to own either first or second. The youngest generation was torn between loyalty to your own and personal freedom.

Low-rated priorities with all ages were religious participation, patriotism and attractive appearance.

The USC study grew out of a desire on Bengtson's part to explore the theory, articulated in the '60s by the late sociologist Margaret Mead, that, for the first time in American history, the old were learning from the young rather than the other way around.

That hasn't happened, the USC researchers have concluded; rather, the generations influence one another a great deal. But it was Mead's observation that inspired Bengtson, a professor of sociology and director of the research institute at USC's Andrus Gerontology Center, to begin the study, which is considered the first of its kind.

In 1971, researchers used the rolls of a Los Angeles area prepaid health plan to locate a core of grandfathers who were members of three-generation families.

The 2,044 participants in that first phase of the study, were identified by researchers as G1s (the oldest generation, whose average age was 67); G2s, whose average age was 45, and G3s, whose average age was 19. In 1972, the researchers conducted in-depth surveys of the attitudes and values of all the participants. By the time of the second phase of the study, in 1985, factors such as death and relocation had decreased the number to 1,331. (Original participants who have not been recontacted are encouraged to call (213) 743-5158).

"We had lost over half of our grandfathers," said research associate Leslie Richards, who was the project director. "And some people moved six times" between studies. Nevertheless, she said, "a significant portion still are three-generation families."

In the years between study phases, 38% of the G3s had divorced. And, Richards said, apparently there had been considerable other intrafamily upheaval. Between the lines of the 46-page questionnaire, respondents volunteered information about homosexuality and incest.

Extend the Study

The USC team is seeking a $1-million grant to extend the study, planning to stay with these families through 1991. By then, Bengtson said, there will be a fourth generation, the third generation will have taken spouses and "we'll have a real firm grip" on intergenerational attitudes and values.

By 1991, the researchers predict, the number of G1s, the oldest generation, will have dwindled to 111--most of them widowed women.

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