The Role of the Family Environment in the Development of Shared Consumption Values: an Intergenerational Study

Elizabeth S. Moore-Shay, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Britto M. Berchmans, Salesian Pontifical University
ABSTRACT - Research on the generational transmission of abstract dimensions of consumer behavior such as materialism, perceptions of economic control, and optimism about the future has received limited research attention. This paper focuses on the character and tenor of the home environment as a mediator of intergenerational consensus. Results of a preliminary study are presented in which young adult-parent dyads were asked to report on their own attitudes as well as estimate those of their partner. Examination of the patterns of intergenerational agreement offer tentative insights into the depth of consumer socialization. Implications for future research directions are outlined.
[ to cite ]:
Elizabeth S. Moore-Shay and Britto M. Berchmans (1996) ,"The Role of the Family Environment in the Development of Shared Consumption Values: an Intergenerational Study", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 484-490.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 484-490


Elizabeth S. Moore-Shay, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Britto M. Berchmans, Salesian Pontifical University


Research on the generational transmission of abstract dimensions of consumer behavior such as materialism, perceptions of economic control, and optimism about the future has received limited research attention. This paper focuses on the character and tenor of the home environment as a mediator of intergenerational consensus. Results of a preliminary study are presented in which young adult-parent dyads were asked to report on their own attitudes as well as estimate those of their partner. Examination of the patterns of intergenerational agreement offer tentative insights into the depth of consumer socialization. Implications for future research directions are outlined.

The degree to which parents and their young adult offspring share similar attitudes and values has emerged as a topic of considerable debate among contemporary behavioral scientists. Historically, it has been assumed that children mirror their parents on a variety of social and political values, and that the family is the primary source of cultural transmission in society. Underpinning this perspective is the basic premise that the lessons learned within the family context have an enduring impact on an individual's adult behavior. However, at the same time, debates persist concerning the existence of a generation gap between parents and post-adolescent youth in terms of their social, political, and achievement orientations (e.g., Peterson and Rollins 1987; Whitbeck and Gecas 1988).

Although the term generation gap seems reminiscent of an earlier age, the question of intergenerational continuity and change remains at issue in the 1990's. Unlike generations before them, Generation-X has grown up amidst enormous change both within and outside the home: greater incidence of divorce, more working mothers, an anemic economy, and the threat of disease, including AIDS (Strauss and Howe 1992). They are often characterized as pragmatic, cynical, and uncertain about what the future holds for them. Much of their alleged dissatisfaction is rooted, either directly or indirectly, in personal economic and consumption issues. Concerns about employment opportunities, wealth acquisition, and flexibility in lifestyle choices are perceived to be common. Their expectations about their own economic future and aspirations are purported to be diminished relative to the level of prosperity attained by earlier generations and their parents, in particular (Newman 1993). The picture that is painted is often bleak, even for those who have benefited from good educations and stable family environments.

It was this portrait of a generation, disaffected and cynical that provided the initial impetus for this study. In the broadest sense, we were led to question: (1) the extent to which this portrayal reflects reality, (2) the degree to which parents and children share similar consumption-related values and attitudes, and (3) under what conditions parents influence their children's values. More specifically, this research focuses on how the family context in which children learn mediates intergenerational consensus and change in the realm of deeply-held values like optimism about the future, materialism, and perceptions of control over one's economic destiny. Although these outcomes are far removed from more traditional variables such as product and brand level choice, they affect consumer behavior at a fundamental level. Perceptions of one's ability to consume, and the value placed on material acquisition influence consumer budget allocation and strategic, potentially life-altering decisions, such as the pursuit of higher education, the purchase of a new home, or even the decision to have children. In his recent review of the status of consumer research, Wells (1993) advocated that researchers attend to the broader, more central dimensions of consumer behavior. It is in that spirit that we focus our attention on the question of what parents teach their children about the pursuit and importance of material goods.

Drawing on the concept of socially-constructed reality, this research focuses on the child's perception of the home environment as a predictor of his(her) personal attitudes as well as the extent to which these attitudes are shared across generations. Of particular interest is the impact of the parent's perceived life-satisfaction, financial management style, and intrafamily conflict on the child's ultimate acceptance or rejection of parental values. This investigation of diagnostic signals within the household extends prior consumer socialization research which has tended to emphasize a parent's general communication orientation or parenting style rather than the specific content of parent-child communications (e.g., Moschis 1985). The research approach is derived from a dyadic model of communication of potential value for understanding intergenerational issues (McLeod and Chaffee 1973).


Consumer researchers have only begun to investigate the skills, attitudes, and behaviors that are transferred intergenerationally. Intergenerational patterns may take a variety of forms ranging from the sharing of specific brand preferences to more abstract consumption-related attitudes and values. One of the first researchers to address intergenerational issues found that a family's ability or inability to attain its financial goals is transmitted from one generation to the next (Hill 1970). In a longitudinal study of three generations, Hill reported intergenerational consistencies in the degree to which family members preplan their financial behaviors and then fulfill those plans. In more recent years, consumer researchers have tended to focus attention on those aspects of consumption which may have the most direct implications for the design of marketing strategy such as store preference, brand loyalty, product category, and brand preferences (e.g., Arndt 1971; Childers and Rao 1992; Moore-Shay and Lutz 1988; Woodson, Childers and Winn 1976). Although there is clear evidence that consumer preferences, skills, and behaviors are transmitted generationally, researchers have not systematically addressed why this occurs.

To begin to address the question of causality, Olsen (1993) utilized ethnographic methods to investigate brand loyalty among several generations within families. Acting as research collaborators, students conducted ethnographies of product use within their own families. The findings were intriguing, indicating that similar loyalties may emerge as an expression of affection and respect, functioning at a very basic level as a reinforcer of familial bonds. Conversely, rejection of a parent's brand and product choices may, in some cases, signify rebellion of a more fundamental nature. Although preliminary, these findings clearly highlight the need for additional investigation of the family context and how it affects the transmission of consumption-related skills, attitudes, and behaviors. Not only is this study suggestive of how goods may convey interpersonal meaning across generational lines, it also demonstrates how little is known about the realities of communication, both explicit and implicit, within the confines of the family. Given the private, intimate nature of this social group, research in this area represents a particular challenge to consumer researchers (Wilkie 1994).

Within the consumer socialization literature, researchers have attempted to address this challenge through the utilization of general communication patterns as predictors of individual family members' consumption-related attitudes and values (e.g., Carlson and Grossbart 1988; Carlson et-al. 1994; Moschis and Moore 1979). Family communication patterns have been linked empirically to a variety of socialization outcomes including media use, materialism, and marketplace orientations. In a recent investigation of intergenerational influence processes, Carlson et-al. (1994) found that the relationships between these broad parenting orientations and the similarity of mother-child marketplace attitudes and behavior are neither simple nor symmetric. Although prior research has consistently demonstrated the relationship between adolescents' perceptions of the family communication environment and their personal consumption-related beliefs, maternal attitudes bear little relation to particular communication environments. This suggests that any links between the general communication orientation within a family and intergenerational consensus are either tenuous or domain specific.

Collectively, the research findings on intergenerational influence indicate that parents and their adult children share specific preferences, buying styles, and economic management skills. Further research is needed, however, to more completely specify both how and why this occurs. In particular, it is important to consider how the family environment and the child's perception of it influence the degree to which parental views are both understood and ultimately accepted or rejected. Although emanating from divergent conceptual and methodological perspectives, both the Carlson et-al. (1994) and Olsen (1993) studies highlight the complexity of the communications that take place within a family context. These communications are both explicit and implicit, with the parents' actions often acting as a signal to the child and vice versa.

Given the complexity of these communications issues, we chose to focus in this exploratory study on a narrowly defined, domain specific set of communication indicators. Rather than concentrating on general patterns of communication (e.g., Carlson et-al. 1994), or the frequency of parent-child communication (Moschis and Churchill 1978), a constellation of contextual variables relating to the child's perception of the home environment and the nature of the communications that took place within that environment were investigated. This is based on the assumption that the family is an important mediator of the external environment and the messages an individual confronts. Although the historical context in which this cohort has come of age has been characterized by some potentially disturbing social conditions, how these events are ultimately internalized and reflected in an individual's attitudes and values rests in part upon the family's power to mediate them. In this particular study, we were interested in how children's awareness of and reaction to money-related conflict within the home might affect their likelihood of adopting consumption attitudes, values, and financial management practices that are similar to their parents. If a child grows up in an environment fraught with conflict and in which financial struggle and dissatisfaction exist, rejection of parental values seems likely. Conversely, when children grow up with a perception of financial security, effective management, and parental satisfaction, we might expect to observe significant intergenerational consensus in adulthood. It is noteworthy that there is a substantial body of literature that reports the influence of money-related conflict on the incidence of divorce (e.g., Janus and Janus 1993). However, relatively little is known about how children are affected, either as witnesses or participants, when conflict about financial matters emerges within a family.

Political socialization researchers have shown that the degree of specificity or concreteness of the belief or attitude may influence the extent of agreement across generations (Troll and Bengston 1979). Since consumer researchers have tended to focus on concrete outcomes such as brand and product class preferences in intergenerational research, it is not yet clear whether the more abstract outcomes of interest in the present study such as materialism, perceptions of control over one's economic destiny and general optimism are transmitted generationally (see Carlson et-al. 1994, for an exception). The presumed conceptual basis for the limited transfer of abstract attitudes is that children can not accurately read the environment, and as a consequence, have limited insight into the views of their parents. However, even presumably abstract attitudes and values may be successfully communicated from one generation to the next if parental behavior provides appropriate cues to the child. For example, materialism may be communicated through shopping frequency, intensity and related discussion. Similarly, observable conflict within the household about money-related issues may reveal a parent's feeling of economic powerlessness. In the present study, the focus is limited to understanding actual levels of consensus between parent and child, based on the presumption that there are sufficient cues within the household to infer parents' concerns and attitudes about money.

Through the investigation of more abstract dimensions of consumer behavior such as materialism, perceptions of control, and optimism about the future, it becomes possible to enrich our understanding of the levels at which intergenerational influences operate. In conjunction with research efforts that have focused at the level of brand and product preference, investigation of these attitudes and values potentially broadens our understanding of the consumer content that is transferred between generations within the family.


A survey was used to investigate intergenerational influences among young adult-parent dyads. This is a particularly interesting population in the study of intergenerational issues because of the eminent transition from dependent to independent financial status. Both parent and child completed questionnaires that asked them to report their own beliefs and attitudes as well as estimates of their partner's. Parent questionnaires were mailed by the researchers and returned within three weeks.


Sixty-three college students and their parents completed the survey. The students were juniors and seniors enrolled in a marketing communications course at a large midwestern university. The parent-child dyads consisted of the following types: 13 father-son, 15 father-daughter, 27 mother-daughter, and 8 mother-son. The students were predominately from intact families, with 84% reporting that they grew up in households with both original father and mother in residence. The parents were well educated, with 62% of the fathers and 52% the mothers reporting completion of a college degree. The combined parent-child sample was ethnically diverse with 69% white, 16% African-American, 5% Asian, and 5% Latino respondents. Economically, 18% of the families reported household incomes below $40,000, 59% reported annual incomes of between $40,000 and $100,000, and 23% reported incomes in excess of $100,000.




Independent Variables. Four sets of independent variables were examined in this study: demographics (gender and perceived socioeconomic position); parent-child communication (frequency of communication about consumption and communication of conflict); perceptions of parents (parent's financial management skills and parent's life satisfaction); and, parent-child relationship variables (frequency of contact and emotional closeness). An extensive search was conducted for appropriate measures of the constructs of interest. Table-1 provides a summary of the measures used, the sources from which they were obtained, and the reliabilities attained. Two measures were specifically constructed for this study. Conflict about consumption was measured on a 5-point scale (a=.74) based on four items that assess the frequency and tension associated with money-related discussion. For example, "Money was a source of tension between my mother and me." Perceptions of parent financial management skill were measured by asking the children to characterize their parent's behavior on a series of 7-point semantic differential items such as discriminating/naive, wise/foolish, deliberate/impulsive.

Dependent Variables. Table-1 also contains a summary of the dependent measures and their sources. A single 5-point measure was developed to assess optimism. Respondents were asked to specify how they would "characterize their general outlook on life" from 5=very optimistic to 1=very pessimistic. To construct the dyadic measures, euclidean distance measures were constructed based on an item-by-item comparison of parent and child responses for each of the dependent variables.


Two sets of OLS regression analyses were conducted as a means of addressing: (1) the extent to which children's perceptions of their home environment influence their personal economic and consumption-related attitudes (an intraindividual level of analysis), and (2) whether these descriptors of the home environment influence the degree of intergenerational consensus (a dyadic level of analysis). Both are useful in furthering understanding of the consumer socialization process.

Dependent Variable Means

Table-2 presents the means for the individual level scores among the younger generation for each of the dependent variables. Although the popular press suggests that Gen-Xers are pessimistic, that they feel they lack control, and that they are materialistic, this is not true of the respondents in this study. Their overall outlook on life is highly optimistic, they are not particularly materialistic, nor do they report a perceived inability to control their future either economically or in general terms. As a group, they appear to be relatively satisfied with themselves and their prospects for the future.

Factors Influencing Young Adults' Attitudes and Values

Multiple regression was used to assess the extent to which children's perceptions of their home environment affects their optimism about the future, sense of general control over their lives and financial circumstances, expectations of how much their parents owe them financially, materialism, and personal satisfaction. The results of these analyses are reported in Table 3.





Conflict between parents and children about consumption issues emerged as a key indicant of children's materialistic tendencies and optimism. Monetary and spending-related conflict was positively associated with a child's level of materialism (b=.26, p<.04) and negatively associated with their general feeling of optimism (b=-.38, p<.005). However, the frequency or extent of consumption-related communication within the home was not a significant predictor of the attitudes and values children come to hold. Collectively, these patterns suggest that it is the character of communication that transpires between parent and child that shapes attitudes carried into adulthood.

However, direct communication is not the only means through which intergenerational influence occurs. Observational learning also plays an important role in the socialization process. When children perceive their parents as generally satisfied with their lives and skilled financial managers, this has a positive influence on their own general satisfaction and outlook. Perceived parental satisfaction contributes positively to children's optimism (b=.43, p<.001) and feelings of personal satisfaction (b=.28, p<.02). Children's perception of their parents as financial managers emerges as a negative predictor of materialism (b=-.28, p<.03). When parents are viewed as competent financial managers, children seem to develop a greater overall sense of security and stability. Perception of financial incompetence, on the other hand, heightens concerns about monetary matters leading to a greater preoccupation with material goods and their acquisition.



The quality of the relationship between parent and child, defined both in terms of the frequency of contact and affective solidarity, also plays an important role in shaping the optimism, personal satisfaction, and control with which children view their lives. Children who are close to their parents report a greater sense of general control over their lives and future (b=.38, p<.02), greater optimism (b=.33, p<.01), and personal satisfaction (b=.33, p<.01). Frequent contact with parents, on the other hand, contributes negatively to children's sense of general control (b=-.35, p<.03). Given the numerous developmental, social, and financial tasks that adolescents and young adults are called to fulfill (Esman 1990), it is reasonable to expect that those who feel distanced from their parents would experience a certain loss of control and lessening of optimism and personal satisfaction. Although the negative relationship observed between the frequency of parental contact and a child's perception of control seems counterintuitive, it may be that frequent contact may reflect a greater dependence on parents and, as a consequence, a reduced sense of personal agency.

The demographic factors (gender and socioeconomic position) played a more limited role in the prediction of children's attitudes and monetary values. Young men reported greater personal satisfaction than women (b=.22, p<.06) and a stronger sense of general control over external events (b=.23, p=.06). Psychologists have observed a similar pattern, reporting that female adolescents have lower self-esteem and self-satisfaction than their male counterparts (Harter 1990). Economic position, as reported by the child, was not a significant predictor in any of the regression equations. Given the rather surprising nature of this finding, the models were respecified using household income (as provided by the parent) as a predictor, and again a null result was obtained. Given that the families in the sample reported a broad range of socioeconomic circumstances, it appears that it is the perceptual variables that ultimately influence the attitudes children develop. These findings suggest that it is the character and tenor of the home environment that affect children's economic and consumption outlook rather than the family's actual economic status.

Collectively, the individual level analyses indicate that all three classes of family context variables (communication related, perceptions of parents, and relationship quality) play significant roles in shaping the attitudes and monetary values young adults come to hold. Although this study is limited in its scope, these findings suggest that the child's perception of the home environment affects the content of consumer learning. The discussion now turns to the dyadic analyses that address the question of whether these contextual factors influence the degree of intergenerational consensus. Since communication involves an exchange of information, it is important that researchers adopt an interpersonal unit of analysis and conceptualize variables as interpersonal constructs. The results of these dyadic analyses are reported in Table 4.

Intergenerational Agreement and Accuracy

The dyadic analyses provide additional evidence that children's perceptions of the home environment influence the degree to which they adopt their parents' values and attitudes. Consistent with the individual level analyses, general communication about consumption plays a less pronounced role in consensus building than more specific conversations about money and its use. Parent-child conflict about money and spending choices reduces the extent to which they share optimism about the future (b=-.37, p<.01). It appears that tensions about money lead not only to divergent attitudes but also reduced insight into one another's beliefs. These findings suggest that conflict over financial matters has enduring consequences for the children and the lessons they ultimately internalize.

One of the most important cues within the home appears to be the parent's purported life satisfaction. When children witness high levels of satisfaction, they are more likely to share parental points of view regarding optimism (b=.39, p<.005), general (b=.36, p<.02), and economic control (b=.29, p<.03) as well as parents' presumed financial responsibility (b=.31, p<.008). Parents who exhibit strong financial management skills positively influence the extent to which their children adopt similar outlooks about their capacity to control the future both generally (b=.36, p<.02) and in economic terms (b=.29, p<.034).

Not surprisingly, the quality of the parent-child relationship also significantly influences the degree of intergenerational consensus. More frequent contact leads to similar outlooks about a parent's ongoing financial responsibility to children (b=.22, p<.034). However, children who feel particularly close to their parents tend to overestimate how much their parents currently feel a responsibility to provide for their economic security (b=-.68, p<.000). Although parents seem to feel that their obligation is almost at an end as their children prepare to begin careers, the children appear to retain the view that their parents still feel this responsibility. Perhaps children who are close to their parents are more susceptible to this misperception since they have been well provided for and have not yet adjusted to their changing role as they enter full-fledged adulthood.

For materialism, the analysis was extended to include measures of intergenerational consensus as well as predictive accuracy. By doing so, it was possible to further assess the utility of the dyadic model of communication in the study of intergenerational influence. Developed by McLeod and Chaffee (1973), the coorientational model asserts that it is not only the absolute level of agreement between two individuals that reflects communication effectiveness but their accuracy in predicting one another's point of view. For instance, two people may choose to disagree with respect to an issue yet do so with full knowledge of the other's attitude. Drawing on this approach, both generations were asked to report their own materialism and estimate their partner's. The pattern of findings was quite interesting. As a group, the young adults had great difficulty predicting how materialistic their parents would report themselves to be. The correlation between the children's predictions and parents' actual attitudes was not significant (r=.17, ns). In addition, none of the contextual factors enhanced the children's predictive accuracy. Parents, on the other hand, had much better overall insight into their children's point of view (r=.36, p<.005), although intergenerational conflict negatively affected their predictive ability (b=-.37, p<.0001). The differential accuracy of parent and child lends credence to the claim that measures of accuracy provide additional insight into the consumer socialization process (Moore-Shay and Lutz 1988) beyond that revealed through consensus alone. Through the use of approaches such as the coorientational model, researchers may develop a better understanding of both the content and direction of intergenerational influence.

Consistent with the intraindividual analyses, the demographic factors had little impact on the extent of intergenerational agreement. Household economic status did not predict the level of intergenerational consensus for any of the dependent variables. Future research drawing on a more diverse population is needed to fully understand what, if any, impact a family's socioeconomic status has in the generational transmission of money-related attitudes. However, the results do suggest that the gender composition of the dyad may affect the extent to which parents and children share materialistic views. In particular, sons and mothers were more likely to differ in their views about the role material goods play in their success and happiness (b=.31, p<.02), relative to other dyad types.

Finally, a series of behavioral outcomes regarding savings, debt accumulation, and credit use were assessed. None of these were related to the family context variables of interest, nor were intergenerational relationships detected. This may perhaps best be explained by the life-cycle stage characterizing each of these generations. Given the younger generation's economic constraints, it is not surprising that their financial management behavior bears little relation to that exhibited by their parents. The generational transmission of consumption-related attitudes and values may serve as a kind of latent template for enactment when circumstances later allow. Future research which examines intergenerational issues across different developmental levels may lend additional insight.


The findings of this exploratory study provide a number of intriguing insights into the generational transmission of deep-seated economic and consumption-related attitudes and values. The character and tenor of the home environment in which children learn has important consequences for the extent to which young adults ultimately come to share their parents' beliefs and values. Although the study sample was limited both in terms of size and diversity, there is at least preliminary evidence that these perceptual factors may, in some cases, override more concrete indicators like socioeconomic status. The child's perception of the parent's life satisfaction and financial skill appear to be important contributors to the development of his(her) own attitudes and willingness to adopt parental views. It may be that the perception of parent satisfaction teaches children that happiness and fulfillment can be achieved across a range of economic circumstances. However, as Olsen (1993) notes, both functional and dysfunctional outcomes are potentially operative. When conflict about money-related matters is evident in the home, children are more pessimistic about their future, more materialistic, and less likely to draw on their parents as consumer role models. Future research is needed to specify more completely the factors within the home environment that either facilitate or inhibit the transmission of these seemingly abstract beliefs and attitudes. Consumption-relevant communications are much more diverse than either this study or existing socialization research seems to allow. An ethnographic approach may be particularly well-suited for furthering our understanding of the form and content of cross-generation communication. Combining this methodology with more traditional survey approaches offers a promising approach for capitalizing on both the richness of qualitative data and the rigor and generalizability of survey methods. Perceptions of control over one's economic future, optimism, materialism, and personal satisfaction are fundamental consumer outcomes. Research on their determinants and consequences in the lives of consumers is important. As such, the conclusions of any single study, particularly one limited in scope and sample, can only be regarded as tentative. Replication and extension across populations and contexts is critical to our understanding of both the content and processes of consumer socialization.


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