Intergenerational Influence on Consumer Decision Making

Patricia Sorce, Rochester Insititute of Technology
Lynette Loomis, American Red Cross
Philip R. Tyler, Rochester Institute of Technology
ABSTRACT - The extent of the influence of adult children on the consumer decisions of their elderly parents was studied. Fifty middle- aged adults participated in 30 minute interviews regarding their influence on a recent purchase of their elderly parents and on the housing decisions of their parents. Two thirds of the adult children reported having at least a "fair" amount of influence on a recent decision of their parents. This influence varied by family life cycle, family structure and the financial and personal resources of the parents.
[ to cite ]:
Patricia Sorce, Lynette Loomis, and Philip R. Tyler (1989) ,"Intergenerational Influence on Consumer Decision Making", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 271-275.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 271-275

INTERGENERATIONAL INFLUENCE ON CONSUMER DECISION MAKING

Patricia Sorce, Rochester Insititute of Technology

Lynette Loomis, American Red Cross

Philip R. Tyler, Rochester Institute of Technology

[This research was sponsored by St. John's Home, Rochester, New York. The authors would like to thank Vincent S. Parks, Jr., President of St. John's Home, for his support in this effort. We would also like to thank Ellen Foxman for her comments on an earlier draft of this paper.]

ABSTRACT -

The extent of the influence of adult children on the consumer decisions of their elderly parents was studied. Fifty middle- aged adults participated in 30 minute interviews regarding their influence on a recent purchase of their elderly parents and on the housing decisions of their parents. Two thirds of the adult children reported having at least a "fair" amount of influence on a recent decision of their parents. This influence varied by family life cycle, family structure and the financial and personal resources of the parents.

Intergenerational influence on consumer behavior "is an interesting question that has not yet received a great deal of attention within consumer research. Its potential effects, however, are very powerful...' (Wilkie 1986, p.181). In one of the few studies in this area, Woodson, Childers and Winn (1977) found strong intergenerational brand preferences for life insurance - young adults were very likely to choose the same life insurance company as their parents. This result demonstrated that consumer socialization continues beyond the nuclear family household, across the family life cycle. The purpose of the present study is to extend our understanding of consumer socialization across the life cycle, with a focus on reciprocal socialization: the impact of adult childrens' influence on the consumer decisions of their elderly parents.

Consumer Socialization

Early research on consumer socialization examined the social factors (parents, peers, and mass media) on the consumer behavior of children and adolescents (Ward, Wackman and Wartella 1977). Research on family influence has focused on decision making within the household, examining the relative influence of husbands and wives in the decision process, and to a limited extent, the influence of young children within the household (Berey and Pollay 1968; Davis 1976). Though the direction of influence was strongest within generations (husbands and wives) and from the older (parent) to the younger generation (children), there is evidence that children do exert some influence on the purchase decisions of their parents. Children's influence on the consumer decisions of their parents varies by the nature of the product, the stage of the decision process, and the nature of the child (Ward and Wackman 1972; Szybillo and Sosanie 1977; Jenkins 1978; Nelson 1979; Belch, Belch and Cerasino 1985; Swinyard and Sim 1987).

This effect has been labeled reciprocal socialization. Ekstrom, Tansuhaj and Foxman (1986) hypothesized that the child's influence will vary with the family structure (it will be greater for single parent households), socio-economic status of the family, and the child's level of product knowledge. Though their focus was on the young child within the household, their hypotheses may be applicable for older children's influence on their parents consumption decisions. Does reciprocal socialization increase as the family passes through the life cycle? The next section will review the relevant research by examining consumer socialization across the life cycle.

Socialization Across the Life Cycle

While there has been a great deal of research or. the socialization of the child, there has been much less work on socialization at later stages in the life cycle (Brim 1966). Social norm; and role expectations vary across the life cycle. Kinship norms predict a role reversal as the parent ages - i.e., the role of giving help to the child is replaced with the adult child helping his or her parents as they lose self-sufficiency (Arling 1976). Hill (1968) studied the giving patterns across three generations - grandparent, parent and young adult generations. He found that the help received increased with age. It was highest for grandparents, and lowest for young adults. Specifically, the grandparent generation received more help than they gave across the major categories of giving (except child care). There is other evidence that aging parents receive more help than they give, especially when they were ill and widowed (Adams 1963; Troll 1971). Moreover, it is usually daughters that give more aid to their aging parents than sons (Adams 1968; Lang and Brody 1983).

Regarding consumer socialization, Moschis has written that "although it has received little attention, one aspect of socialization that is unquestionably important in later life roles derives from the reciprocal relationship between parent and offspring" (196 1 p 22). Research on the consumer behavior of older Americans has shown this to be the case: relatives are important sources of information about consumer products (Klippel and Sweeney 1971; Schiffman 1971). Smith and Moschis (1985) further showed l';a this influence was dependent on the age of the elderly parent: i.e., as the age of the parent increased, there was less interaction with family members about consumption. While this result conflicts with previous work, it can be explained as an artifact of the consequences of aging, and not the impact of the influence of the adult children. Disengagement theory predicts that people may reduce their exposure to information as they age. However, they may be more likely to rely on informal sources of information when they do make consumer decisions (Moschis 1987).

In sum, there is some evidence that role reversal exists for consumer decision making where adult children have an impact on the consumer decisions of their aging parents. The goal of this research is to determine the extent and nature of the influence of adult children on the consumption decisions of their elderly parents. The following propositions will guide the research:

1. Adult children's reported influence on the consumer decision making of their aging parents will increase wi h the age of the parents.

2. The adult child's influence will vary with family life cycle: adult children will resort more influence on their widowed parent (solitary survivor) than on their still married parents.

3. The adult child's influence will vary with family structure: daughters will report more influence than sons.

4. Influence of the adult children will vary according to the financial resources and personal capabilities of the aging parent: children whose parents are experiencing health problems, or whose parents have few financial resources, will report more influence on the consumer decisions of their parents than children whose parents are healthy and relatively affluent.

METHOD

Subjects and Procedure

Using a mall intercept procedure, adults who had parents over the age of 60 were asked to participate in a 30 - minute interview. They were offered a $10 incentive for their efforts. Forty five women and five men comprised the final sample. Their parents' median age was 72 for their mothers and 78 for their fathers. There was a qualified refusal rate of approximately 25%.

Instrument

The interview questionnaire was designed to test the four propositions. The dependent variables were:

- the degree of self-perceived influence that adult children have had on their parent's major decisions, measured on a four point scale ranging from "a great deal of influence" to 'none at all"

- the nature of the reported influence on a recent decision of their parents, open-ended and coded to determine a) the nature of the product and b) the decision stage of their influence.

- the degree of self-perceived influence that adult children had, or expect to have, on their parent's decision to move from their home o the following dimensions (rated on a four-point scale as described above):

- when to move

- where to move

- what type of dwelling to choose

- how much to pay

(This specific consumer behavior was queried in this study because earlier research conducted by the authors found that 82% of a sample of Older Americans would ask the advice of their family and children when considering their next move.)

The independent variables were; parents' age, marital status and health, number of people in parents' household, and value of parent's home. For the adult children themselves, the independent variables were: income, age, sex, and educational attainment.

RESULTS

Table I presents the frequency distributions on the dependent variables. Two-thirds of the sample (66%) reported that they have had "a great deal" or a "fair amount" influence on their parents major decisions. These decisions included: moving/housing (28%), home repair (12%), parents' vacation (12%), health services (10%), durable goods purchase (10%) and financial matters (10%). A small proportion of the sample (6%) reported that they did not have an influence in their parent's major decisions.

The adult children were asked what type of influence they had on a recent decision of their parent(s). Over two-thirds (70%) reported that they provided information and advice. A small proportion (8%) reported that they were directly involved in the choice process.

In terms of their influence on their parents' moving decisions, again, a large proportion of the adult children reported that they have had or expect to have "a great deal" or "a fair amount" on when their parent's move, where they move to, and what type of dwelling they will select. They expected to have a lower degree of influence on how much their parents will pay.

To test the propositions, the data were submitted to a Pearson correlation analysis. The resulting correlation matrix is presented in Table 2. The influence of adult children on their parents decisions did not vary by the age of the parent, but was impacted by the family structure: adult children reported more influence on parents who were widowed than on parents who were still married or divorced on their 1) major decisions (r = .30), 2)what type dwelling to select (marginal, r = .23), and 3) how much to pay for it (r = .29). Moreover, it was the daughters who reported a greater influence than .hz sons on when the parents should move (r = -.29). The degree of influence did not depend on whether the parent lived alone or with others.

TABLE 1

FREQUENCY DISTRIBUTIONS ON THE NATURE AND AMOUNT OF INFLUENCE OF ADULT CHILDREN ON DECISIONS OF THEIR ELDERLY PARENTS

Influence also varied by the relative personal and financial resources of parent. Adult children reported a greater influence on their parents' decision of when to move if their parent(s) had health problems than if they did not (r = .28). They also reported more influence on their parents' decision of how much to pay for housing if their parents currently owned a lower priced home than a higher priced home (r =-.26). There was also a marginally significant negative correlation between value of the parents' home and the influence of the children on the parents' major decisions: more influence was reported by children whose parents had relatively lower versus higher home values (r = -.21).

The impact of the resources of the adult child was also marginally significant. The results showed that adult children with higher incomes reported a greater influence on their parents' major decisions (r = .21). In addition, children with higher educational attainment reported a somewhat greater impact on the decision of what type of dwelling their parents should choose (r = 20).

TABLE 2

CORRELATION MATRIX

DISCUSSION

The results demonstrated the importance of reciprocal consumer socialization in the later stages of the family life cycle. The respondents reported that they assisted their aging parents in a wide variety of purchase decisions. Their influence was greatest in the earlier stages of the consumer decision process, with over two-thirds reporting that they provided advice and information to support their parents' decision making. Only a few (8%) reported having a direct impact on choice.

Support was found for three of the propositions tested. The extent of adult children's influence on a recent major purchase was impacted by family life cycle: more influence was reported by children of parents who were sole survivors (widows) than those who were married or divorced. Note that this result cannot be explained by living situation, because there was not a significant correlation found between amount of influence and number of people living in a household. Adult children may provide, or bc asked to provide, support for their widowed parents as a way to compensate for the loss of the spouse.

That adult children have more influence on their parents who have greater needs is also supported by the results testing a second proposition: adult children whose parents had health problems or lower financial resources reported having greater influence on their parents' housing decisions than those children whose parents were healthy and relatively affluent.

These results suggest that reciprocal socialization in later stages of the family life cycle is based on the needs of the aging parent. The informational influence of adult children may be offered as help to aging parents as they lose self-sufficiency. This help is not offered to parents simply as a function of age: no differences were found in children's influence by age of parent. This is not a surprising result given other research that has found the usefulness of non-chronological age measures in explaining consumer behavior of Older Americans (Barak and Gould 1985). Clearly, age alone does not create the need: it is the losses that accompany aging - loss of spouse, declining financial resources or ill health - that are related to the increasing influence of adult children in the decisions of their aging parents.

As an exploratory study, this research suffers from a lack of adequate sample size, unconventional scaling measures, a large number of dependent variables, and the measure of influence from only the perspective of the adult child. However, it supports the notion of the importance of the extended family as gatekeepers, information seekers, and deciders for the older American consumer, and serves as a base for future research.

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