Merril Silverstein

Topics and Timestamps

Merrill Silverstein, Professor, Human Development and Family Science, Falk College, Syracuse University.
Merrill Silverstein, Professor, Human Development and Family Science, Falk College, Syracuse University. Image used with permission.

Alex Bishop

I am here today talking with Dr. Merril Silverstein from Syracuse University. Dr. Silverstein is a longstanding, I guess you would describe yourself as a family gerontologist or a social gerontologist, and has been in the field for four decades, now? Three decades?


Merrill Silverstein

it depends when you start my graduate studies, but yes.


Alex Bishop (0:24)

We are delighted to have you here today to talk a little bit about your research and a little bit about, kind of disentangling some of the terms that we, and the concepts that we see in family gerontology particularly. But first off I want to kind of just have you share a little bit about yourself, especially what do you do as a gerontologist and, really, how did you become interested in the field of aging itself? Did it find you, or did you find it? You know, that kind of question that we often hear.



Merrill Silverstein

Sure, OK thanks Alex, it’s a pleasure to be speaking to you and others who are going to access the material. That’s a very good question. How I got involved in gerontology or aging as a scholar started when I was in a Mater’s of Social Work program. This would have been in the late 1970’s and I did field work at a community mental health center. They were assigning students to field placements and they said ‘Well, nobody’s working with the elderly. Do you want to give it a try?’ And I did, and I worked at a, I think they call themselves the biggest senior citizen’s center in the United States. This was in Brookman. And I found it really intriguing to work with older people in their 70’s and 80’s who were intellectually vibrant, politically active, these were the days of the Gray Panthers which were kind of a club or radical group that was advocating for the rights of older adults. There were nursing home protests against financial abuse and maltreatment of older people.


Anyway, that kind of got me interested in the field of aging. It got me interested in how people got to that point in their lives and what their motivation was and what their life course patterns were. And then if you move the clock ahead a few years, as a graduate student at Columbia University, my dissertation supervisor, Eugene Witwack, had a grant from kind of a fledgling National Institute on Aging. They were looking to fund projects. They funded his, I was a graduate research assistant on it, and I got interested in the social aspects of aging and how people negotiate their social networks, what benefits that provides for them in terms of mental health, physical health, reduced mortality, and that was kind of my first foray as a scholar into the area and it served as kind of a bridge to my interest in families and also demography because I was studying mortality and migration which are two staples of demographic research. And then everything kind of snowballed from there. So that kind of gives you the short answer to my kind of personal involvement as well as my scholarship involvement in the field of gerontology.



Alex Bishop (3:13)

I appreciate that. It’s interesting how individuals in our field get involved and get intrigued by the study and there’s a lot of different life experience that really plays a part. Now you’ve done some exceptional work in the field of family gerontology. And a lot of students will run across different terms, life course terms that include inter-generational solidarity, inter-generational transmission. Can you explain, what’s the difference between inter-generational solidarity and this kind of conflict of inter-generational transmission?



Merrill Silverstein

Well solidarity is a term that was popularized and expanded by Vern Bankson who was a mentor to me at University of Southern California where I was for 20 years as a faculty member in the gerontology school in the department of sociology. Solidarity really refers to the cohesion between generations and it takes many forms. It can take the form of emotional attachment, it can take the form of physical interaction or virtual interaction with other generations. It can also refer to structural issues such as how far you live away, how much exchange or caregiving or support is provided across generations, so it’s very multi-dimensional.


I can get to the nuances of how we approach it but I think it’s probably best to say that really reflects the ways that generations are bound together. Transmission is more or less a concept that we use to describe how one generation influences the other. And that gets to the domain of what we call consensual solidarity which is how much the generations are in agreement with each other. Which is kind of an end product of transmission. I mean we’re all influenced by social actors in our lives, families may be the number one source of influence because we’re raised by parents or parent-like figures, and so we’re kind of trained and socialized to have various views about the world and our lives and those influences are a form of, we call consensual. Not every family conforms to that, right? So there are children who deviate from their parents’ beliefs and viewpoints. But in general terms we see a fair amount of continuity across generations and this gets to the central paradox that both Vern and I explored over our careers which is that generations may differ in terms of their political attitudes and social outlooks and one only needs to go to the Baby Boomers to see how that protest generation deviated from their parents. But when we look under the surface we still see a lot of continuity. That is, children resembling their parents in fundamental ways which gets to much of my current work on religion and spirituality. Although we see that overall children and grandchildren are less religious than their parents and grandparents, we still see that the most religious parents are begetting the most religious children. And the least religious parents are begetting the least religious children.


So even though we see these population or cohort changes, without getting too technical about it, we still see that there is a transmission and a resemblance across generations. In many aspects of life including religion and spirituality. But I would also include secularity. That is, secular parents are raising more secular children. And so this kind of reinforces the societal pattern that we see overall. So that’s in a nutshell how we might fit transmission within the solidarity paradigm.



Alex Bishop (7:05)

That makes perfect sense. You talked about religion and spirituality, that’s one of the areas you’ve been in most recently, which is really interesting because just recently, in the last few months and year, there’s been a couple of polls that have come out and said belief in God is very very low. Low church attendance especially among these younger generations. What’s going on there, do you think? Who has the most influence, and you may be asked this question quite often, is it the parents? Is it the grandparents? Or is it mom, is it dad? Why are these types of processes in decline as we see in the news media, or are they in decline?



Merrill Silverstein

Well, yes. They are in decline at least according to some of the big national surveys that have been done over a few decades already. That when people are asked ‘Do you have a religious affiliation or do you identify with a denomination?’ Far fewer adults affirm that identification. The estimates now are that about a third of adults 18 and over say they have no religion. These are the “Nones,” n-o-n-e-s. Of course you know about. And that has really accelerated over the last few years. So I think it’s safe to say that in another few years we’re going to be up to 50 percent of people who have no religion. Now that doesn’t mean that they don’t have religious inclinations which may be more privately expressed. Or have spiritual practices which kind of border on religion or at least on transcendent type of thinking. And this is the subject of a study that’s currently underway, it’s just about finishing in terms of data collection, to try to get at more of the nuances of what we call non-materialist thought. Spirituality, belief in a higher power, belief in the soul, even to things like environmentalism as kind of a replacement for religion in terms of enjoying going out for long walks in the countryside. Things that might seem mundane but give spiritual meaning to people. As well as the more traditional spiritual practices of meditation and yoga and those sorts of things. So we’re trying to get at many ways that people may be, let’s call it replacing, I’m going to put that in quotes, “replacing” religion with other forms of spiritual development. So I think the simple statistics are correct that there are more people who are less involved in institutional religions but we might be seeing a growth or at least a stabilization of people who are practicing private forms of spirituality and I think we’ll be producing some research papers on that in the coming few months.



Alex Bishop (10:05)

This is kind of a question that popped in my head. This is an extra question. Do you think these individuals are aging better than the previous generation? Or do you think are they worse off, relying more on these private practices like you said rather than having formal membership in an organizational type of religion or group?


Merrill Silverstein

That’s a big question, can private spirituality, let’s call it, replace formal religion with all the benefits that provides, that we know that has to do with involvement in a formal structure and finding meaning in written materials, the bible, and other forms of scripture. Rule-based religiosity which, as we know, gives people direction and a source of meaning in their lives. And I think we have to add the social component of participating in a formal religion. That is, that people are going to services, involved in their congregations in some fashion, that produces a strong sense of, within group solidarity, that produces tangible benefits in terms of having support systems. I know when we moved to Syracuse from southern California we left a synagogue that was very highly integrated. And we had many friends from that synagogue so if we needed child care we could call any of ten families that we were very close to because we were in a subgroup within that organization and they were very trustworthy and very likely to respond in a positive way to requests like that. Or if someone was sick or widowed or so on, you have an instant support group that is altruistically oriented that will respond. And so we lost all that in one fell swoop. And that, I felt that as a social loss but there’s also the practical loss aspect to it which was felt very acutely.


Now you have to build that up again and you can, but it’s harder to do, once again, once you’ve had that kind of social platform. So whether people are going to age differently without religion, the answer is probably mixed again, probably in some aspects yes and in other aspects no. But one can’t get around the fact that as aging progresses, the need for various forms of support and eventual care becomes more important. And the loss of religion as a source of that support, if that erodes, I think that can only spell less than positive outcomes or maybe more reliance on families which are also stretched in this area. So I think we’re coming at it with some pessimism but the data have not really spoken yet so we don’t know exactly.


On the other hand…I’ll just be devil’s advocate here. On the other hand individuals are extremely resilient and that is, I think, a hallmark of the human condition and so adjustments may be made to the absence of this institutional form of religion in people’s lives as they age.



Alex Bishop (13:20)

Thank you for sharing that makes perfect sense. The story that’s unfolding, soon to be told. Well when you think about the totality of your career, this is a question I have been asking everyone, and the years of research you’ve done and the findings that you… the discoveries you’ve made, what is that one discovery, that one finding, whether focused on the topic of religiosity/spirituality, inter-generational relationships, grandparenting, all the work you’ve done, what one finding or discovery has intrigued you the most? And how do you think that has helped advance the field of gerontology in some way?



Merrill Silverstein

Well I’ll give you two. One is older than the other. I think that some of the earlier work I did with Vern Bankson especially, it was a bit surprising how strong parent/child relationships are in adulthood. And how consistent they are. That is, we found some adult children were very close to their parents but in a small minority there was conflict. And those conflicts and that closeness seemed to be consistent across the lifespan. So in one example we found that in our qualitative interviews that there were some families that were characterized by conflict that you would have thought would be only present among adolescent children. You know, ‘My mother controls me and she doesn’t listen to me and I feel overwhelmed by her and I don’t have my freedom,’ What you’d hear from a 15-year-old child and then you see that this woman is 65 years old and her mother is 90 years old.


So the consistency with which those bonds are maintained. Now, granted, most relationships are very close. Most of them are characterized by a high degree of exchange and support and care. But there are a minority that are conflicted and ambivalent in their orientation toward each other. And if you trace back in time you’ll see the seeds of that. So how consistent those relationships are was a contribution but a little bit of a surprise. Because you think we’re capable of change and we are, but overall our sample showed consistency over time. The other finding, I guess, would be the importance of grandparents. And this gets to the issue of transmission. What we’re finding is that even when we control for parents’ orientation we see that grandparents are active transmitters of religiosity to their grandchildren. And much higher under certain conditions.


So when parents are divorced we see grandparents stepping in and becoming more influential on their grandchildren as well as alleviating psychological stressors and burdens in their grandchildren. So they are kind of the silent army of the family in the sense that they are willing and able to step in, but even under what you might call normal or regular conditions grandparents have to delicately transcend the boundary between the grandchildren and their parents. But their influence is acutely felt in terms of outcomes that we can observe. That is, more religious grandparents have more religious grandchildren. Even controlling for the religiosity of the parents. So, I don’t know if that was a surprise. We certainly went in with that as a hypothesis but the data seemed to confirm, and independent of influence of grandparents on grandchildren whether that’s tacit or active is something that I think more research is needed to uncover. Or is it genetic, right? So, it could be various pathways by which grandparents are influencing their grandchildren but the fact that they are seems to speak to their important role within the family.



Alex Bishop (17:16)

That is very interesting. Have you found that grandma or grandpa have a stronger effect, or did they both have an equal effect do you think?



Merrill Silverstein

More equal than you would think. It’s interesting because in some… some of the research shows that grandmothers are more important transmitters and other shows that grandfathers or fathers themselves are more important. So the gender breakdown depends on what you’re measuring. So when we look at the transmission of what we call norms of familism, that is, how important family is to the person. How important caregiving for older people might be, we see that fathers are more important. And in some ways the importance of fathers has to do more with the, how can we say, the wider range with which fathers are invested in their families. So, mothers tend to be more active in terms of influence overall. With fathers you get more influence and then less influence. Some fathers from divorced families cut off themselves from their children and so they don’t influence their biological children, maybe their step-children more, but even then less than I think overall. And so fathers have more variation in the way that they approach family life. And so what we see is that the more invested fathers and grandfathers tend to have an outsized influence compared to the less involved ones. For mothers, they are in a way more important overall. But with fathers and grandfathers we see more of a spread. I don’t know if that’s a technical issue or whether that makes sense in a more intuitive way. But I think if we were to say that one is stronger than the other we would probably have to center on grandmothers and mothers as sort of the primary socialization agents within families with fathers kind of taking a back seat. But there’s more of a falloff for fathers in terms of the disengagement that they might have in their families compared to mothers.



Alex Bishop (19:15)

Yeah that makes perfect sense. I mean, from my life experience it was always grandma or mom that made you go to services. It was dad that said ‘Well yeah you gotta observe this particular day but I think I’ll skip next week.’



Merrill Silverstein

Right, I prefer to watch football or something on Sundays, or whatever. Right? So you’ll get more disengaged fathers at least in terms of religion. So, mothers are more involved in maintaining the religious home, I think, and maintaining religious rituals within the home. That’s always been true in my experience.



Alex Bishop (19:56)

Absolutely. Well the final question, the million-dollar question, is for our class we are really focused on successful aging and really understanding this concept from many different perspectives and avenues. Based on Rowe and Kahn’s concept of successful aging, and there’s always been kind of this ongoing debate: what is it, how do we define this concept. My question to you is, based on your perspective, how do you define successful aging and where do you agree or disagree with this whole concept that Rowe and Kahn created?



Merrill Silverstein

Sure. Well as you might guess I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, both using and critiquing the successful aging paradigm. When I was editor of the Journal of Gerontology, Jack Rowe wanted to publish an article called Successful Aging 2.0. And I said ‘Sure, that’s fine. Send in a manuscript.’ I reviewed it but what was strikingly lacking in his update of the paradigm was what I would call inequality in the aging experience. That is, people through no personal choice or set of behaviors on their part might have been born into situations of environmental pollution, of poverty, and so on that have influenced their life trajectories that have led to what we might call unsuccessful aging, right? If you have success you have to have failure. And I think it’s wrong to put that label on people who have not had opportunities to engage in healthful behaviors and activities.


And also, just the randomness of life produces difficulties for people to achieve this objective standard of success in aging. Or genetic conditions that may be beyond individual control. So I like to think of… call successful aging as something more akin to optimal aging. That is, you’re optimizing the endowments and the resources that you have at any one point in time. I think that word or at least that concept might be more inclusive and more useful. I guess here I would borrow from sociology and psychology, it’s hard to come up with what’s kind of a new concept of successful aging.


But I think what resonates with me are concepts of resilience. How that’s developed is a whole other story but to have resilience in the face of adversity, you know the term, the phrase, aging is not for sissies, right? It becomes a bumpy road and sometimes a challenging road. And your ability to adjust and adapt to changing conditions becomes, I think, very important. And, I guess those two concepts of optimal aging and resilience may describe, I think, a broad range of strategies that people can think about in terms of giving their old age purpose and meaning. So perhaps the third leg of the stool on this is kind of the Ericsonian concept of generativity. Of remaining active and productive and engaged throughout life. And Rowe and Kahn talk a lot about that in terms of social integration and so on, but I think a very important aspect of it is to not see old age as a time, necessarily, of withdrawal although there are camps that advocate for that. But to maintain your active involvement in whatever it is, in volunteering, in family life, in leisure activities, intellectual engagement, physical engagement, to maintain as much as possible as one approaches the last stage of life. So I guess those three things: optimize, what I was just talking about in terms of finding generativity, as well as being resilient or adaptive. So those, to me, are the three pillars of successful aging. Which fit Rowe and Kahn to a large degree but other points of view as well.



Alex Bishop

I appreciate you sharing that and that concludes the questions for this short interview.




Successful Aging Copyright © 2022 by Alex Bishop. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book