Life Course Theory and Intergenerational Relationships in Families

Researchers have employed different approaches to analyzing intergenerational relationships in families. The life-course theory stemmed from several longitudinal studies held in the first part and the middle of the twentieth century (Elder, 1998). Elder (1998) states that the wealth of the obtained data-enabled scholars to identify the relationship between socioeconomic factors and the development of individuals. The life-course theory is also instrumental in exploring intergenerational relationships within families by the provision of insights into the effects of external and internal aspects on family members.

One of the aspects addressed in terms of the theory under consideration is the analysis of the roots of inequality. Gilligan et al. (2018) argue that inequality is often cumulative as it is transmitted across multiple generations. The disadvantages of a family member, be it their economic or social status, the lack of education, or physical conditions, tend to have adverse effects on new generations that are more affected by similar, as well as additional challenges. Baby boomers who were disadvantaged achieved lower results compared to their peers, which led to their families’ less advantageous position and the cumulation of negative factors (Gilligan et al., 2018).

For instance, an older family member’s physical disability is associated with lower income and lower access to quality education and healthcare for younger members of the family, which exacerbated the disadvantageous position of all generations within the family. The theoretical paradigm under analysis helps in identifying the exact factors and mechanisms related to the increase of inequality in the USA.

The life course theory also helps in understanding the peculiarities of intergenerational relationships in families in terms of attachment and link development. According to Tsai et al. (2012), people’s transition to adulthood is related to considerable discontinuity within families. The researchers found no substantial differences across genders and ethnicity, so the transition to adulthood is characterized by common features.

The decline of the ties during adolescence is mainly compensated during young adulthood, but external factors may often interfere with this process. For instance, parents’ education has a significant effect on the children’s perceptions related to family relationship continuity. Families with higher social status tended to have shorter periods of discontinuity, and it was often less pronounced. Thus, external aspects of social life have an impact on the way intergenerational relationships evolve.

The framework under analysis also provides helpful insights into the ways family arrangements develop. It has been acknowledged that the co-residence of grandparents is often determined by the socioeconomic status of the family (Dunifon et al., 2014).

At that, the impact on the financial security of parents or grandparents is central. Single mothers tend to live with their parents, and this co-residence is specifically common among underprivileged groups. As mentioned above, the financial constraints of the family contribute to the disadvantageous position of children (Gilligan et al., 2018). It is noteworthy that the input of grandparents has been explored in numerous studies (Silverstein & Marenco, 2001). The peculiarities of these financial and other types of support influenced children’s and grandchildren’s well-being and intergenerational relationships. Grandparents’ age and socioeconomic status are influential factors affecting the development of families and individuals.

In conclusion, it is possible to note that the life course theory assists in identifying the factors affecting the development of individuals, families, and relationships within families. The understanding of these mechanisms is important for the development of effective policies aimed at improving the well-being of individuals and communities. Based on the research guided by the framework in question, policymakers will create and establish initiatives that will contribute to the minimization of inequality, which in its turn will have a beneficial effect on the evolvement of American society.


Dunifon, R. E., Ziol-Guest, K. M., & Kopko, K. (2014). Grandparent coresidence and family well-being. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 654(1), 110-126. Web.

Elder, G. H. (1998). The life course as developmental theory. Child Development, 69(1), 1-12. Web.

Gilligan, M., Karraker, A., & Jasper, A. (2018). Linked lives and cumulative inequality: A multigenerational family life course framework. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 10(1), 111-125. Web.

Silverstein, M., & Marenco, A. (2001). How Americans enact the grandparent role across the family life course. Journal of Family Issues, 22(4), 493-522. Web.

Tsai, K. M., Telzer, E. H., & Fuligni, A. J. (2012). Continuity and discontinuity in perceptions of family relationships from adolescence to young adulthood. Child Development, 84(2), 471-484. Web.

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PsychologyWriting. "Life Course Theory and Intergenerational Relationships in Families." September 14, 2023.