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Study Finds Parents Serve as a Safety Net as Grown Kids Navigate the Workforce

small children, young adults and older adults stand in silhouette and hold hands
Photo credit: Tyler Nix.

For Immediate Release

Anna Manzoni

A new study underscores the role that parents play as a safety net for their young adult children as those children navigate the labor market, and highlights the challenges facing young adults who do not have access to parental support.

“In recent decades, we’ve seen a lot of changes in the labor market, from the decline of lifetime employment at one job to the rise of the so-called ‘gig economy,’” says Anna Manzoni, corresponding author of the study and an associate professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. “We wanted to see what role parents are playing in supporting their adult children as those children go through transitions in employment, from full-time to part-time work, pursuing further education, and so on. We focused specifically on the children as young adults, between the ages of 18 and 35.”

For this study, the researchers drew on data from a long-term survey of families in Germany. Ultimately, the study drew on survey response data from 4,199 people between the ages of 18 and 35.

Specifically, the researchers looked at how changes in the employment status of adult children affected three kinds of parental support: emotional, material and instrumental. Instrumental support includes assistance with day-to-day activities, such as helping out around the house. Material support refers to things like financial support and gifts. Emotional support refers to things like personal advice.

The researchers found that parents were more likely to provide material support to their adult children when their children were leaving the labor market – especially if they left the labor market to pursue additional education. Conversely, when adult children transitioned from education into employment, parents were less likely to provide material support.

“Our work reveals that parents are responding to the needs of their children – but they also appear to be driven, at least in part, by social norms,” Manzoni says. “For example, adult children leaving the workforce to pursue additional education are likely to receive material support from their parents. Adult children who have been laid off are not as likely to receive material support from their parents. But both groups would benefit from the additional help. This suggests that parents view education as ‘good,’ and thus more deserving of material assistance.”

Instrumental support – help with day-to-day activities – only increased when adult children left the workforce altogether. This effect was driven almost entirely by adult children who left employment because they had a child.

The researchers found no relationship between employment transitions and emotional support.

“Our findings drive home the extent to which parents can provide meaningful support to their adult children as those children navigate the working world,” Manzoni says. “While this is a valuable resource for many people, it also illustrates one way that existing inequalities can be reinforced. Young adults who don’t have access to that kind of family support are at a significant disadvantage that can have significant consequences for them socially and professionally.”

The paper, “Young adults’ labour market transitions and intergenerational support in Germany,” is published in the journal European Sociological Review. The paper was co-authored by Michael Gebel, chair of methods of empirical social research at the University of Bamberg.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Young adults’ labour market transitions and intergenerational support in Germany”

Authors: Anna Manzoni, North Carolina State University

Published: Feb. 20, European Sociological Review

DOI: 10.1093/esr/jcad006

Abstract: Research has shown that parents provide considerable support to their children; however, we know little about the influence of young adults’ employment experiences on the support they receive from their parents. We draw on data from the German Family Panel pairfam for birth cohorts 1981-83 and 1991-93 and use a first difference panel estimator with asymmetric effects to examine the extent to which young adults’ employment transitions affect material, emotional, and instrumental support from parents. We find stark differences across types of support: parental material support changes in response to transitions in and out of employment, especially when to and from education. Other types of support seem less contingent on labour market transitions. Instrumental support only increases for transitions from education to employment and from employment to NEET. The latter effect is mainly driven by women entering parental leave. We do not find strong evidence of differences between transitions to standard and nonstandard work. The association between employment transitions and intergenerational material support flows suggests that families act as safety nets, raising concerns about those whose families are unable to help.