Baby boomers one day may lack kin who care Stepping in: The smaller, often fractured biological families of today's baby boomers may not be there for them in their old age, but their stepchildren might be.

November 09, 1995|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

With baby boomers producing fewer children than earlier generations -- at the same time that Congress is debating limits on the government safety net, a demographer warns of a possible problem ahead:

The elderly of 2030 may be living without the network of kin that Americans today rely on for emotional, physical, even monetary support.

But there could be an answer, says Kenneth W. Wachter, a demographer at the University of California at Berkeley. And that is: stepchildren -- the product of the baby boomers' divorces.

Other observers disagree on whether stepchildren, though plentiful, will feel any obligation to care for their elderly steprelatives.

"Kinship is a latent network, that lies there dormant until you activate it," said Diane Lye, professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Stepties may not be as easy to activate."

Jeannette Lofas, the founder of the Stepfamily Foundation, said "the evidence doesn't augur well for the future."

Why, she asked, should we expect ties among stepkin to be any stronger in the future than they are today?

"Who cares for us when we're old?" she asked. "Probably nobody."

That would have serious implications for Americans' futures. If there are fewer family members to look out for each other -- to call and visit and provide care when ill -- then the elderly will have to buy some of the services that relatives have been providing, sociologists say.

The poor, however, may not be able to afford the kinds of support that could compensate for fewer relatives -- such as a home health aide or help with house repairs.

And even the affluent won't be able to pay for emotional support -- someone to bake a birthday cake or bring the grandchildren to visit.

Stepchildren and stepgrandchildren, however, could provide that network, Mr. Wachter said.

Today, they tend not to be as connected to their stepparents as to their biological kin. But as divorce and blended families become more common, he said, "we may be able to relate to our stepchildren differently. We may be able to establish these connections."

If his optimistic view is correct, "things such as divorce, remarriages and blending families -- things that have been seen as weakening families -- may end up strengthening them, because we've extended the number of our relationships."

His statistics argue for changes in the way many Americans plan for their old age.

"The projections suggest you won't have the depth and extent of family resources that one might have now," says Richard Suzman of the Office of Demography at the National Institute on Aging.

"For example, a very large fraction of long-term care costs are borne by the family, not just financially but through informal, unpaid caretaking," he said.

But if fewer relatives are available to share in that care, "that obviously will put pressure on nursing homes and other forms of long-term care," Mr. Suzman said.

To compensate for the dearth of relatives, people might begin saving more or buying insurance for long-term health care, he said. Governments might begin public education programs or offer tax incentives to encourage savings.

Government may want to develop more basic strategies. It may be good public health policy, Mr. Suzman said, to encourage marriages to stay intact.

Mr. Wachter began his research by taking 1990 population statistics for white Americans and projecting them to 2030, when the older baby boomers will be in their 80s. (He did not include African-Americans, because he said their family patterns vary greatly from whites' and divorce does not disrupt their family ties as much as it does among whites.)

The white elderly of 2030 will average fewer biological children, which means fewer prospects for phone calls and holiday visits and physical care, Mr. Wachter said.

Younger generations also may feel the negative effects, he said, if they do not spend time with older relatives.

"These connections go both ways," Mr. Wachter said. "Care and involvement among generations are an important part of social health.

"If the optimistic views turn out to be true, it seems to me that there will be a family safety net that will potentially make up for some of the inevitable losses in the government safety net," Mr. Wachter said.

And if his optimistic view is not correct?

"I think the baby boomers better look out for themselves," said Ms. Lye of the University of Washington.

"In biological families, the rules of the game are very clear," Ms. Lye said. "It's much less certain what the obligations of the stepchildren are. Are you responsible for bringing your stepfather, whom you only lived with from the age of 16 and 19, into your home in his old age?"

But each family is different, she said. And the strength of kinship ties "depends very crucially on what goes on during childhood and the young adult years.

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