Bridging the generational gap

How is demographic change affecting intergenerational solidarity in Europe? What policies are best suited to promoting social integration among an ageing population? These are among the key questions being explored by MULTILINKS, an EU-sponsored research project led by the Erasmus University Rotterdam. Although the project is still ongoing, it has already yielded significant findings that could provide EU and national-level policy makers with orientation on a broad range of socio-economic issues from childcare to retirement.

One of the project’s main achievements so far has been the creation of an overview of relevant legal and policy frameworks in all 27 European Union Member States. The database of comparative indicators focuses on two essential areas: firstly, legal obligations to support and care for children and needy older relatives, particularly one’s own parents, and secondly, public support (income transfers and services) for young children and the elderly. Researchers, Chiara Saraceno and Wolfgang Keck assembled this database in order to ascertain how specific institutional frameworks support both individual autonomy and a willingness to be responsible towards one’s children and frail parents.

MULTILINKS operates on the premise that demographic ageing affects people of all ages, not just the elderly. The researchers assume that critical interdependencies between family generations (and between men and women in families) are built and reinforced by legal and policy arrangements. The project then sets out to identify what those arrangements are around Europe. These intergenerational indicators are dispersed over a wide range of sources in the various Member States and data are rarely harmonised and readily comparable, since those gathering the data may not use the same definition or the same unit of reference.

Also the main EU effort at collecting social policy data, the Mutual Information System on Social Protection (MISSOC) is far from having succeeded in achieving a good level of standardisation and comparability in all areas. In this respect, the project has revealed a pressing need within the EU to better monitor the process of data collection in the areas which concern family policies and intergenerational interdependencies.

Despite the problematic nature of their data pool, the researchers have succeeded in constructing a number of informative charts that illustrate the diversity of intergenerational policy regimes in the EU. The following provides an excellent example:

Figure 1 - Child care coverage through “effective leave” and publicly financed services, in working weeks

Note: Children 0-5. EU27 2003-2007 and Russia.
Romania and Malta not included because data on childcare for the under 3s are missing.
Source: own calculations using various databases. See Saraceno and Keck, 2008.

Figure 1 shows the duration (in working weeks) of childcare coverage provided in all EU Member States (except Romania and Malta) as well as Russia. The earliest phase of coverage concerns effective leave (i.e. maximum leave duration weighted on the basis of level of compensation) from work, allowing parents to care for their young children at home. In most countries, given the incomplete coverage through childcare services for children aged less than three, leave is generally followed by an ‘early care gap’. However, the chart shows enormous policy differences with respect to childcare policy. While some countries, such as Denmark, provide high levels of support in all forms, others, such as Poland and Greece, offer “very low levels of support in any form”. The researchers note that in those societies where families end up assuming full responsibility for childcare by default, social inequalities are reinforced.

Helpfully, even in its early stages, MULTILINKS has formulated concrete policy recommendations for specific target audiences. EU statistical offices and the Social Protection Committee, as well as national statistical offices should:

  • Make a substantive effort at improving the quality and standardisation of information on a number of social indicators.
  • Effectively address the care needs of elderly people and develop comprehensive policies to meet these needs. Currently, despite increasing concern about an ageing society, this area is amongst the least documented and most outdated in terms of EU data collection.

Recommendations for national and EU policy makers include:

  • In order to support intergenerational responsibilities in families within a framework of gender equality and a concern for countering social inequality, policies should ease the burden of responsibilities through a balanced mix of income support (e.g. child benefits), time to care (e.g. paid leave) and provision of non-family care.
  • Expectations of intergenerational support should not be at the expense of individual autonomy and dignity for all involved.

Employers and trade unions should ensure that:

  • Policies related to working time and practices need to take account of workers’ care responsibilities. Policies should consider such responsibilities as likely to recur and should be assumed to affect equally male and female workers.

MULTILINKS - How Demographic Changes Shape Intergenerational Solidarity, Well-being and Social Integration: A Multilinks Framework (duration: 1/3/2008 – 28/2/2011) is a Specific Research Project funded under the 7th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 3 – Major trends in society and their implications.


Contact: Pearl Dykstra,