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International Day of Families

  15 May 1999     

Families for all ages


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Family LogoThe Life Course of Individuals and Families

A family is a living entity, holding together in a dynamic relationship members of different ages and generations.

As individuals move along their particular life-path – coming of age, marriage, parenthood, maturity, growing dependence and ultimately death – they alter also the chemistry of the family that contains them. For the family these milestones can bring tension, even crisis, and always the need for adaptation; but also renewal and regeneration.

A passed-down understanding and awareness of the significance of these milestones and the corresponding needs of the various members and of the unit as a whole underpinned societies over the ages. A similar understanding is now required also of the policy makers and the practitioners who have the social responsibility for ensuring the support that may be needed from outside the family at such times as a union (family formation); the addition of new members (birth, adoption of children); separation (young/adult children leaving the home, illness or incapacity); marriage dissolution or death of a family member.

Policies need to be geared both to the individual’s need of particular ages as well as his or her family circumstances. Dependent young children require considerable parental time. The loss of one spouse’s income represents a severe burden for most families. But the loss of income is dramatically different at each stage of family development. For families with infants, the loss might mean reliance on day care and less parental attention from the surviving parent (when she/he exists). For families with adolescent children, it might mean restriction in teenage recreation and the necessity for after school work to help the family.

The family stages present challenges that can be further exacerbated by factors like poverty, armed conflicts and certain cultural mores that rigidly define and govern when and how certain life events should take place as well as the roles, rights and responsibilities of each family member. Age of unions/marriage; right to child custody upon the separation of the parents/legal guardians; rights and responsibilities of a widowed woman, etc. are examples of situations/transitions within the life course of families often defined by cultural mores and local policies.

Families for all ages can thus be interpreted in two broad ways that are complementary. On the one hand, the responsibility of families to nurture, care and provide support to all of their members appropriate to their ages; on the other, the need of families for assistance, support and protection to perform their functions during the different phases of their life cycles.

These approaches encourage greater attention to the needs of individual members of the family based on their individual needs, and an understanding of families as systems. They can assist policy makers in the development and implementation of more concerted actions. Family and individual support are then provided within the context of the life course of both the individual and the family.

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Family LogoFamilies for All Ages: The Developmental Stages of Their Individual Members – Challenges and Opportunities


Families play a strategic role in the survival, development and protection of children, notably with respect to socialization, education and the intergenerational transmission of culture and values. Parents and families, like schools and day-care centers, have the opportunity to mould younger generations.

The effects of poverty on the socialization and education of children can be devastating. Adequate and affordable child-care services and family supportive work environments are central in supplementing and facilitating the full development of children and parent-child relationships. Integrated programmes in early childhood care and development can provide a sound foundation for life-long learning. This encompasses a range of community-based services to young children from birth to 8 years of age and also to their families.

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Young Adults

Young family members can, and often play a pivotal role in socialization within the family. They can have a positive impact on their parent's personalities. Parents can receive from their children information on many issues with which they normally do not deal with. Young people bring into the family fresh ideas and propagate social, cultural and political changes emanating from schools and colleges. For example, immigrant refugee parents often learn from their children the language and customs of the new country. Young people also make significant contributions to sharing household tasks, including income generation through their participation in the labour force and caring for other family members.

Enabling youth to make responsible choices, ensuring their safety and health, and overcoming discrimination are therefore critical. Families are central to this, and the necessary skills and support must be made available to them.

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Young Families

Families headed by young people need special attention. Young people benefit from schooling by acquiring skills that facilitate their incorporation into the labour market and practical knowledge that they can apply in all areas of their lives like decisions of family formation and reproductive choices. These affect their development and options of live, as well as influence the ability of the young parents to provide, care and nurture their children. Relationship and parenting skills and opportunities for young parents to continue their education and incorporation into the labour market, are components of an enabling environment that supports and strengthens these young families.

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Older Persons

In the traditional extended family, older persons enjoy high prestige as custodians of village lore and morality, and as persons standing nearest to departed ancestors. As long as they are physically able, they also contribute to productive work in farming and in the household. Within the extended family, they enjoy a sense of belonging, as well as emotional and physical security. Overall, many older persons rely on the support they receive from their families.

Research shows that the extended family continues to play its traditional role, though often at a distance, with good relationships maintained between ageing persons and their adult children. Even in the most developed countries, the family continues to be an important provider of care and supportive services to older persons, especially through daughters and daughters-in-law.

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Family LogoThe Influence of Demographic Changes on the Family

At the same time, given the concurrent phenomena of decreasing family size and increasing numbers of older persons, as well as other demographic and social factors affecting family structure, formal institutions have arisen to share or take over some of the traditional responsibilities of families.

Many social policies relating to older persons still need to be improved. A current policy issue is thus to find a proper balance between the family and government assistance: to help the family continue to be responsive to the needs of its older members and yet to provide outside care when critically required. Clearly, social policy must take into consideration not only the needs of the older persons but the links between the generations.

The falling birth rate and the resulting decrease in the number of children available in a family to care for ageing parents is also affecting the capacity of the family to continue its care-giving role. A second factor taxing the resources of families as care providers is the increase in the numbers of the very old, who may require intensive nursing and other support. While family members may wish to continue care for very old relatives, they will, in most cases, lack the skill and physical capacity to provide continuous nursing supervision. Linked to the growing prevalence of the very old is the increasing probability of families encompassing four or five generations. It becomes exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for a middle-aged person to care for two generations of elderly relatives, in addition to carrying out the roles of parent and grandparent.

The preponderance of widowed women among the old is another factor affecting the availability of family support. The tendency of men to marry women several years younger than themselves and the longer life expectancy of women in many areas implies that older women have a high probability of experiencing a long period of widowhood in later life. The loss of a spouse means loss of socio-economic support and companionship, and makes older women vulnerable to poverty and social isolation when support systems and protective legislation do not exist.

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Family LogoFamily-oriented policies: An Enabling Environment for Families for All Ages

The global conferences of the 1990’s sponsored by the United Nations recognized and acknowledged the need for policies that support the family, whatever its form. Governments have the responsibility to strengthen the role of the family by formulating appropriate family-friendly policies and programmes and providing an environment conducive to the strengthening of the family.

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Family Logo Recommendations

Governments are urged to:

  • Adopt a family-integrated approach to planning and development, which would recognize the special needs and characteristics of individual family members within a family context.
  • Make efforts to support, protect and strengthen families in accordance with each society’s system of cultural values; responding to the needs of its members, promoting social policies that encourage the maintenance of family solidarity among generations, with all members of the family participating.
  • Make available education o parental skills, particularly for young parents, promoting shared child rearing by both parents.
  • Provide community and home-based care for older persons, in the spheres of health, housing and social welfare.
  • Ensure continuity of the vital role of the family and the dignity, status and security of the older persons.
  • The role and contribution of the non-governmental organizations in strengthening the family as a unit should be stressed at all levels.

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Family LogoSources

  1. The State of World Population 1998: The New Generations. UNFPA, New York.
  2. Families Function: Family Bridges from Past to Future. International Year of the Family Occasional Papers Series, No. 19. United Nations, Vienna 1995.
  3. The Family and Youth: issues, Problems and Opportunities. International Year of the Family Occasional Papers Series, No. 11. United Nations, Vienna 1994.
  4. The World Ageing Situation: Strategies and Pollicies. Department of International Economic and Social Affairs. United Nations, New York, 1985. Pp. 73-74.
  5. International Plan of Action on Ageing and United Nations Principles for Older Persons. United Nations. New York, 1998. pp. 34-35.
  6. The World Ageing Situation 1991. United Nations, New York 1991.
  7. Education for All: Achieving the Goal. Final Report, Mid-Decade Meeting of the International Consultative Forum on Educational Consultative Forum on Education for All. 16-19 June, Amman, Jordan, UNESCO, 1996.
  8. Ilardo, Joseph A. As Parents Age. "The Impact on the Family", pp. 43-79.
  9. Klein, David M. and James M. White. Family Theories: An Introduction. Sage Publications, 1996.
  10. Secretary General Report on the Follow-up to the International Year of the Family, 1997 (A/52/57).

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