Wöhler, Thomas

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No children in later life, but more and better friends? : Substitution mechanisms in the personal and support networks of parents and the childless in Germany

2016, Schnettler, Sebastian, Wöhler, Thomas

Given increases in childlessness, we ask if and how the permanently childless substitute for adult children in their later-life support networks. Previous research finds that they are disadvantaged on several network and support indicators. Yet, the role of different substitution mechanisms remains unclear. We examine two substitution mechanisms: substitution through adjustments of network size/composition and through higher efficiency of personal ties. Data are from the German Ageing Survey (childless: N = 1,886; parents without/with residentially proximate children: N = 4,437/8,337). Our descriptive and regression results on network size/composition and the number of potential informational and emotional supporters show that both mechanisms play a role: the childless have more friends and extended kin, and they are more likely to consider them as potential supporters, than parents. Across cohorts or age groups, the relative effect size of network size/composition versus tie efficiency changes. Parents with no children nearby constitute a mixed type that shows similarities to the childless on some indicators of social support and to parents with at least one child nearby on other indicators. Our findings provide a foundation for better predicting how current demographic trends affect future scenarios of social support in later life and for identifying the future need for formal care services. Thus, they are relevant for social scientists and policy makers alike.