Diverse individualisations and interdependences: how adult only-children's marriage and family formation affects parent-child relationships in urban China
My research focuses on the first generation of only-children and their parents, to see how the only-children's marriage affects the relationships with their parents thus contributing to debates around intimacy and individualisation processes in China. Since the implementation of the one-child birth control policy in the late 1970s, the one-child family has become a common family type in urban China. With the shrinking of family size caused by reduction in the number of births, my research explores how this change, together with socioeconomic change, affects the intergenerational relationships in Chinese families. The Chinese family has traditionally involved a long-term contract between parents and children, in which parents raise children with the assumption that children would reciprocate by taking care of them in their old age. Scholars have asserted that under the influence of marketisation and consumerism, individualisation is rising which leads to the decline of moral behaviour and disintegration of family bonds, as well as obligations to elderly parents. Most existing research on intergenerational relationships in only-child families has adopted quantitative methods and often focuses on elderly care problems, overlooking the complexity of only-children’s meaning-making process in relation to their parents and the family. My research uses qualitative methods and involved interviews with 120 people from 30 only-child families, members of the couple and one of their respective parents. In the Chinese context, individualisation has had an impact on intergenerational relations in only-child families and existing theories generally see individualisation in terms of the selfishness of younger generations, with little exploration of the impact of individualisation from the point of view of older generations. My study fills this gap and the data reveals that both the only-child generation and the parent generation show a trend of individualisation, varying according to social background. However, relations between generations continue to be based on interdependence, and the importance of intergenerational interdependence is not confined to China. Although debates about individualisation in China situate it within the specific context, my work points out the need not to assume that it means people are actually more self-reliant. My work shows how the privatisation of support for families affects the relationships between older parents and their adult children.