By: Anne L. Buffardi, Victoria Ampiah & Nathaniel Amoh Boateng
In the growing literature on youth transitions, comparatively little attention has been paid to the role that young people play as providers, particularly support for people outside of a nuclear family unit. Based on 92 interviews with 44 young adults living in rural Ghana, this research investigates the multiple reasons why they provide financial and in-kind support to a range of immediate, extended and non-family members. We create a typology of motivations, identifying eight reasons youth identified for supporting people across four generations. These drivers of support relate to the past, present and future and do not fall neatly into dichotomies of self-interest or altruism. Some are situational, dependent on the need of the recipient, the ability of the young person to provide support at that point in time and/or circumstances of other people in their broader family and social networks. Youth identified multiple reasons for supporting the same person and articulated different motivations depending on their relationship to the recipient and their gender. Together, these nuanced explanations offer insights into an often-overlooked aspect of youth transitions and a departure point for further research into the important role young people play in supporting others in their families and communities.
Young people are embedded within intergenerational family and social networks, where they play a variety of roles: child, sibling, friend, spouse, parent, neighbour, grandchild. Although much of the literature on youth transitions focuses on pathways from education to employment, transitions to adulthood also entail shifts in young people’s positions relative to others – namely, from dependence on parents and childhood caregivers towards greater self-reliance and ‘independent’ adulthood (Roberts Citation2011; Krahn et al. Citation2018; Alam and de Diego Citation2019; McDowell Citation2020; Sanderson Citation2020; Stuth and Jahn Citation2020). The focus of the literature is understandably on young people’s experiences. Some studies have examined the extent to which and ways immediate and extended family members support young people through these life changes (Conger and Little Citation2010; Hardgrove, McDowell, and Rootham Citation2015; Vogt Citation2020).
Yet, comparatively little attention has been paid to the role that young people play as providers for others as they assume greater responsibilities, particularly support for people outside of a nuclear family unit. Our research aims to help address this gap, investigating the multiple reasons why young people provide financial and in-kind support to others among a sample of young adults living in rural Ghana. Their support covered a range of immediate, extended and non-family members, including uncles and aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews, friends and community members. We examine what motivates youth to offer this support and how these drivers vary depending on their relationship with the recipient and by gender.
In distinguishing the different types of support roles young people play and why, our findings highlight the need to expand current conceptions of young people’s roles within intergenerational and community networks. Our work advances the youth transitions literature by focusing on young people as providers rather than transitioning dependents and examining their place across a broader set of relationships beyond immediate family and in an understudied context. In doing so, we help to diversity understandings of emerging adulthood beyond Europe and North America where the majority of youth research is conducted, with potential relevance to and beyond the Global South.
Our enquiry is grounded in the youth transitions literature, but also draws on and contributes to two additional bodies of work, which do not always speak directly to one another: research on family and kinship networks, and on intra and inter-household resource exchange. These three areas of study focus on distinct units of analysis: a particular life stage, African social structures and financial transfers, and examine the economic and social implications of each, to varying degrees. We incorporate all three perspectives by focusing on young people’s exchange relationships across several generations and outside of household and family bounds to include the wider community. Below, we provide a short overview of each of these bodies of literature, their relevance to our study and the gaps our work helps to fill.
Youth transitions to adulthood
Globally, research on youth transitions has deepened understanding of the nature of these changes, including the diverse, non-linear pathways young people take (Bynner Citation2001; Valentine Citation2003; Billari and Liefbroer Citation2010; Roberts Citation2011; Mary Citation2014; Krahn et al. Citation2018, Sanderson Citation2020; McDowell Citation2020; Stuth and Jahn Citation2020). As noted, there is a strong emphasis on transitions from education to employment, often with a focus on high income countries and the barriers young people face in securing stable employment that enables them to be financially self-sufficient. Relatively few studies investigate the specific roles of family members in youth transitions beyond the broader influence of family socio-economic status. Hardgrove and colleagues (Citation2015), however, highlight the importance of family support in enabling youth to navigate labour market opportunities. Conger and Little (Citation2010) examine the role of siblings, primarily in terms of social support and role modelling. More recently, Vogt (Citation2020) identifies four roles members of three generation families played based on their level of interaction and type of involvement in young people’s lives: inspirational, sharing, detached and distanced, thus evidencing both helpful and limited familial support.
A burgeoning literature on youth employment in Sub-Saharan Africa similarly identifies barriers disproportionately faced by young people and broader considerations for countries to capitalise on the ‘demographic dividend’, as growing proportions of the population enter the labour market (Filmer and Fox Citation2014; Cilliers Citation2021). For instance, relative to adults, it can be more difficult for young people to access land, leverage networks, and secure sufficient capital to invest in a new business or for agricultural inputs and machinery (Fox, Senbet, and Simbanegavi Citation2016; Alam and de Diego Citation2019, Saab and Shakhovskoy Citation2019). Although this research is more specific to labour markets in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly their informal nature, like research in high income countries, it is also predominantly focused on school to work transitions. There is surprisingly little attention to the role of family and financial interdependence, as enabling and/or constraining forces.
Family and kinship networks
In contrast, African sociology has long documented the importance of family and kinship structures and the interdependence of rural communities (Nukunya Citation1992). Scholars have observed shifts over time, with a greater emphasis on nuclear families than in the past; however, most acknowledge the enduring role of extended family networks (Nukunya Citation1992; Ardayfio-Schandorf Citation1995; Aboderin Citation2004; Kpoor Citation2015; Dzradmedo, Amoako, and Amos Citation2018). This includes the prominent role of grandparents and parents’ siblings in caregiving (Donkor, Issaka, and Asante Citation2013) and in matrilineal societies, support from brothers and maternal uncles (Kutsoati and Morck Citation2014). Indeed, lineage can often be considered stronger than marital ties (Clark Citation1999; Kutsoati and Morck Citation2014). Children, especially older siblings, are also expected to contribute to the household and to support aging parents (Ardayfio-Schandorf Citation1995; Chant and Jones Citation2005). Particularly in rural areas, there is often an implicit expectation that these responsibilities begin once someone becomes economically active.
Previous research has examined the economic implications of kinship and formal and informal social networks (Udry and Conley Citation2004; Lyon Citation2000), including their role in filling gaps in state social welfare (Nukunya Citation1992; MacLean Citation2011; Strupat and Klohn Citation2018; Manful and Cudjoe Citation2018). Support provided through these networks is largely characterised in a positive light. However, scholars have also recognised the consequences for people providing support to others, limiting individual finances and hindering savings, investment and entrepreneurship (Nukunya Citation1992; Kutsoati and Morck Citation2014; Strupat and Klohn Citation2018). This has been characterised elsewhere as the dark side of social capital (Di Falco and Bulte Citation2011).
Unlike the youth transitions literature, which focuses on young people rather than the broader networks within which they are embedded, these studies highlight the influence of family, kindship and community; but, rarely feature young people as a subgroup of particular interest. Indeed, Obidoa and colleagues (Citation2019) lament the paucity of research on emerging adulthood in African contexts, a particularly notable omission given population demographics. One exception is Yeboah’s (Citation2017) small study of rural youth who migrated to the Ghanaian capital of Accra, which documents financial and emotional support from family and friends from the same community or ethnic group, as well as exploitation within these networks.
Overall, however, there appears to be very little published work investigating how, within extended family and community networks, the roles of youth may differ from adults, the elderly or children, or how they vary over time, through phases of transition and by gender. Moreover, young people in Ghana are growing up in a unique and shifting cultural context, relative to both older generations in their own country and their peers in high income countries in North America and Europe, where the literature is concentrated. Therefore, our work captures their experiences in a distinct period in their own lives as well as transitions in the society in which they live.
Concepts of youth in West Africa
In our study context, traditional family and social structures were based on age and gender, with clearly demarcated roles (Ardayfio-Schandorf Citation1995). Puberty rights such as the Bragoro among the Ashantis, for example, publicly signalled a major life transition. As in other settings, rising education levels in Ghana, urbanisation and globalisation are delaying the age of marriage and childbirth (Nukunya Citation1992; Ardayfio-Schandorf Citation1995). Even with additional responsibilities of childrearing, however, young people may continue to reside in their family homes and may not socially be considered an adult until much later. Periods of economic austerity have also influenced social contexts, with examples of older women supporting 2–3 generations of dependents (Clark Citation1999).
Fortune and colleagues (Citation2015) argue that the social construct of ‘youth’ in West Africa reflects a very diverse group where people’s experiences and perceived status is mediated by identities including age, gender, ethnicity, religion, rural/urban setting and the social networks and broader context in which they are embedded. Indeed, the period of emerging adulthood in West Africa, relative to other settings, could be characterised as starting earlier – for some at puberty; and, extending longer, reflected in national definitions of youth, which in Ghana is from the age of 15 to 35 (Ministry of Youth and Sports Citation2010).
Perceptions of transitions to adulthood, however, are influenced by multiple factors and support Fortune’s argument more so than the government’s classification. In a recent study, Ghanaian university students rated most highly relational markers of adulthood – family capacities, including ability to financially support a family, care for children and run a household. Chronological, legal and biological transition measures were rated much lower. An overwhelming majority also agreed that being financially capable of supporting parents signalled a transition to adulthood. There was more consistency in ratings between genders than not. That said, there were some significant differences, with females rating family capacities and interdependence higher than males and males rating biological transitions higher than females (Obidoa et al. Citation2019). Together, these findings reinforce the value placed on people’s relationships to others, particularly for women, and the centrality of relationships to perceptions of youth transitions.
Our work contributes to the limited research on youth studies and emerging adulthood in Ghana, and in doing so, also deepens current understandings of interdependent social structures in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Intra and inter-household resource exchange
Finally, our research relates to a fairly substantial body of work across disciplines and contexts that examines different motivations for providing support to others. A core set of reasons appear most often: reciprocity, self-interest, altruism and duty. However, the definitions for these concepts vary, including whether concepts are linked or are considered separately. For instance, in studies conducted Ghana, Strupat and Klohn (Citation2018) make a simple distinction between altruism, where there is no expectation of future benefit, and reciprocity, with the expectation of support at a later time, including to buffer against future shocks or more dependent stages of life. Aboderin (Citation2004) discusses perceived duty among adults and their aging parents based on norms of reciprocity to repay previous support, threat of divine punishment and underlying self-interest. In addition to mutual help and obligation, Nukunya (Citation1992) further identifies generosity, good neighbourliness, friendship, reputation and pooling resources to invest in education or new business as reasons why people support others.
A subset of work looks specifically at reciprocity. Following Gouldner’s (Citation1960) early characterisation of the concept as a ‘mutually contingent exchange of gratification’, scholars have subsequently differentiated types of reciprocity. The distinctions and terminology are not always consistent, and vary in part on the direct or indirect nature of benefits (Nowak and Sigmund Citation2005; Schokkaert Citation2006; Kolm Citation2006; West, Griffin, and Gardner Citation2007), short-term or lifelong periods of time (West, Griffin, and Gardner Citation2007), upstream or downstream orientation (Nowak and Sigmund Citation2005; Kolm Citation2006), instrumental or symbolic value (Sacco, Vanin, and Zamagni Citation2006; Molm, Schaefer, and Collett Citation2007), and the nature of relationship between the people involved (Schokkaert Citation2006; Kolm Citation2006; West, Griffin, and Gardner Citation2007; MacLean Citation2010; MacLean Citation2011; Ligon and Schechter Citation2012; Tsai and Dzorgbo Citation2012) and their financial status (Mitrut and Nordblom Citation2010; Tsai and Dzorgbo Citation2012).
The economics literature often tests motives for supporting others as competing hypotheses (Altonji, Hayashi, and Kotlikoff Citation1997). For example, Hussein and Kajiba (Citation2011) and Kazianga (Citation2006) test altruism, exchange (reciprocity) and mutual insurance motives in Tanzania and Burkina Faso, respectively. Both studies find little support for the explanation that financial transfers are given to others as a form of insurance to share risks. Moreover, they find differences across urban and rural, higher and lower income households in terms of the significance and timing of resource transfers, suggesting a more complicated set of associations. Indeed, Schokkaert (Citation2006) argues for the need to move beyond dichotomous categories of altruism and exchange motives, questioning the ability of econometric approaches to sufficiently explain patterns of support.
Notably, none of the articles we reviewed on household resource exchange mentioned young people specifically. This gap, coupled with the inconsistent definition of concepts, guided our approach to the analysis of young people’s narratives.
Materials and methods
These analyses are based on narrative responses from 92 semi-structured interviews with 44 youth living in agricultural districts in 5 regions in Ghana: Ashanti, Brong Ahafo, Central, Volta, Western. provides a snapshot of the national context, with a focus on areas most relevant to our work and for which data is available. Just under half of the Ghanaian population lives in rural areas, where our study was conducted, and over a third of households are headed by a female. Nationally, youth literacy rates and out-of-school youth are comparable between females and males. However, a higher proportion of female youth are not in education, employment or training and are ‘contributing family workers’ to an enterprise operated by a member of their household, whereas a higher proportion of males are in the labour force and employed in agriculture. Similar proportions of both genders reported borrowing money from family or friends in the last 12 months, but these social networks served as the main source of emergency funds for nearly half of females, compared to one third of males. The vast majority of Ghanaians identify with a religion, 98% of people ages 18–25, a slightly higher proportion than older age groups (95% among people ages 45–64) and a proportion which has risen over time (92% overall in 1999) (Afrobarometer Citation2019).
Profile of Ghana.
Sampling and participant profile
Our participants were part of a nine-month training programme that sought to link young people ages 17–25 to quality employment or to start their own businesses in the agriculture sector. The programme targeted out-of-school youth, providing technical, financial and social skills training, which covered agronomic practices, entrepreneurial opportunity identification, analysis and business modelling, leadership, values and identity, rights and responsibilities, and communication. Our respondents were part of a subset of programme participants randomly selected to be part of a longitudinal study examining changes in their lives and financial status prior to and for up to 3 years after the end of the training programme. Baseline quantitative data across all age brackets suggested the existence of interdependent economic relationships. Therefore, a qualitative component was added to the longitudinal study for the post-programme follow-up rounds of data collection to better understand the dynamics of these support networks.
We aimed to understand the diversity of young people’s experiences and to ensure that the full range of age groups and geographic contexts were included. We also intentionally did not want to solely profile high performers, which is often the case with development programmes. Thus, we randomly selected one female and one male from each age group (17–19, 20–22, 23–25 at the time of programme enrolment) from each of the five regions where the programme was operating to be part of the qualitative component. Thirty participants took part in the first post-programme pilot round of data collection. When a randomly selected young person was not available, interviewers sought to identify another participant of a similar profile (i.e. a female 23–25 years old in the Ashanti region). Due to the profile of replacement youth in the first round, we added an additional 14 youth to participate in subsequent rounds to balance out this subsample in terms of gender, age and region.
provides an overview of the demographic, household and support profile of these young people. Just over half had children (56%) and nearly two thirds were married (63%), the timing of which tends to be earlier in rural than urban settings. They lived in relatively large households, with a median of 7 members and as many as 15. Eighty-six percent reported at least one dependent, although a minority served as the household breadwinner (35%) or head of household (23%). These young people most frequently provided food (84%) and money (70%) to others, followed by clothing (51%), health care (43%) and school (27%) costs.
Semi-structured interviews were conducted in April 2019, August 2019 and February 2020. These dates were intentionally timed at different points across the major and minor agricultural seasons, which affect the level of financial resources circulating in the local economy and therefore market and employment opportunities. Interviewing the same young people over time enabled us to examine how their support networks changed over time and follow up with each person about specific issues affecting their lives. For instance, we were able to ask about a greater breadth of relationship types, particularly people that youth only supported periodically, than otherwise would have been possible with a cross-sectional study and a single data collection time point.
Prior to the interview, youth provided verbal informed consent. Participants were interviewed at a location where the respondent felt most comfortable, typically at their farms or homes. The conversations lasted approximately 30-60 min and were conducted in Twi, Ewe and English by trained Ghanaian interviewers. When youth were not available to meet in person at the second or third interview round, typically because they had travelled away from the area, we interviewed them by telephone.
Semi-structured interviews followed a standardised guide, intended to explore a common set of questions but remain flexible to explore particular responses in greater depth through probing and follow up questions (Adams Citation2015). The guides were tailored to the young person’s responses in the previous round to aid in recall and included specific questions about the type of support they provided to different people in their lives. Interviewers probed why the young person was providing support, what prompted them to do so and why they were providing support rather than someone else (when that was the case). Interviews were recorded and subsequently transcribed and translated into English.
Profile of study participants (n = 43).
The full interview transcript was first coded in MaxQDA according to a priori themes including the level and type of support, motivation and relationship to the recipient. Responses relating to youths’ rationale for providing support were then categorised independently by two members of the research team. Because of the exploratory nature of this enquiry, we employed an inductive analytical approach (Braun and Clarke Citation2006) in developing the typology presented in the results section, creating and refining the list of categories based on the narrative responses. This involved going back to the full set of responses once the typology was finalised to ensure that each narrative excerpt had been coded for all relevant categories. Discrepancies among research team member codes were discussed before assigning the final category.
We then undertook two additional analyses, examining motivation by relationship type and by gender. Each statement was linked to one or more of 16 specific relationship types: grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, husband/boyfriend, wife/girlfriend, brother, sister, child, uncle/aunt, cousin, niece/nephew, other family member (i.e. siblings’ spouses), family (not specified), friend or community member (i.e. neighbour, church member). We subsequently subgrouped these relationships into immediate family, extended family and non-family. In the rural Ghanaian context, including in respondent narratives, the nature of households is quite fluid, so we intentionally chose to focus on specific relationship types rather than household versus non-household members.
To analyse gender patterns, we focused predominantly on the gender of the young person providing support. We systematically assessed the proportion of females and males that mentioned each motivation type. We also examined the gender of elders receiving support, notably the relative absence of discussion of respondents’ support to fathers in their narratives.
Young people’s experiences in rural Ghana offer three key insights into the underexplored role of youth as providers within extended, intergenerational networks. First, young people support others for a wide range of reasons that are more nuanced than existing categories, which are predominantly focused on reciprocity, self-interest and altruism. Second, our participants articulated multiple motivations for supporting the same person, calling into question studies which treat motivations as competing rather than complementary rationales. Third, young people’s motivations are relationship and context contingent, varying based on the young person’s relationship with the recipient and for some motivations, by gender. We explore each of these findings in turn and then interpret and discuss implications in the final section.
Youth express a range of reasons for supporting others
In interviews, youth participants discussed a range of reasons for supporting others, much broader than are typically considered in research on intra and interhousehold resource exchange. Their motivations clustered into eight broad categories. In descending order of prominence, youth spoke about supporting others in response to the existence of need, reciprocity, duty, to enable a good future for others, financial ability, religion, kindness or love, and reputation. presents quotes from youth participants illustrating each concept.
Reasons why young people provided support to others.
The existence of need and reciprocity were raised most often, so we further distinguished between responses within each of these two categories. The quotes in provide an example of each subtype.
While existence of need may have implicitly been a driving factor in previous research, this rationale is rarely explicitly discussed in other work. In young people’s minds, however, need was most prominent. This likely reflects the rural Ghanaian context in which they are living, where households may struggle to fulfil basic needs such as adequate food and health care.
Some spoke about need in general terms: ‘I was trading … [but] my capital got finished. … I used the money to help my family any time they were in need’ (female, age 27). The majority of narratives, however, referred to three types of situations when the youth was the one providing support: to fill gaps left by decreased support from another family member, to complement support being provided by others, or to fulfil needs in the absence of other options. This distinction suggests that the decision to provide support may be dependent not only on the situation of the young person and the recipient, but also on changes in their broader support network. This underscores the interdependent, intergenerational nature of their relationships.
Similarly, youth alluded to different types of reciprocity, so our classification specified four subtypes that were mentioned by multiple people and two additional examples, each mentioned once. Differences related to the direction and timing of the exchange, frequently linked to the type of relationship with the other person, and whether the young person was reciprocating support they had already received or were expecting reciprocity in the future. Young people referred to returning support to a specific person, paying back, often to someone older than them who had supported them in the past; balanced reciprocity, where both people were giving and receiving support on an ongoing basis as needed; and anticipating future benefits to themselves from a specific person, nearly always someone younger. Less often, youth referenced generalised reciprocity, where they anticipated a future benefit to themselves, though not immediate and not linked to a specific person.
In one instance, the reciprocity relationship was indirect, with the participant supporting his siblings so that in the future they would support his children: ‘In future [my siblings] would say to my children that I was their ‘father’ who helped them so they will also support my children’ (male, age 23). Another person referenced paying forward the support he received: ‘[The youth training programme] helped me, so I must in turn help others’ (male, age 19).
Following the existence of need and reciprocity, young people mentioned duty most often as a rationale for providing support. This sense of responsibility often appeared to be tacitly interpreted rather than imposed. Multiple people indicated it was their choice to provide support, not something that was demanded or overtly asked of them: ‘It’s out of my free will’ (male, age 27); ‘It’s not that [my mother] told me [to pay my siblings’ school fees]’ (male, age 25). No one spoke explicitly about social norms influencing their behaviours, like expectations that older siblings support younger siblings and that children support aging parents. Many statements were very matter of fact, suggesting these norms may be sufficiently internalised that it may not occur to the young person to act otherwise, or to explain these norms to a Ghanaian interviewer who was speaking to them in their local language.
Need, reciprocity and duty accounted for more than two-thirds of the narrative statements. Five additional reasons were mentioned less often: to enable a good future for others, financial ability, religion, kindness or love and reputation. Although less common, they still add important dimensions in understanding the breadth of young people’s motivations. Unlike the concept of anticipating future benefits for themselves (reciprocity), enabling a good future was focused on the future of the recipient. Several youth related this motivation to their own lack of opportunity, wanting to enable others to have access to more education, for instance, that they themselves did not.
Previous research has documented the negative financial implications for individuals providing support (Nukunya Citation1992; Kutsoati and Morck Citation2014; Strupat and Klohn Citation2018). For some young people, however, their decision to support others was contingent on their financial ability to do so. They perceived it as an option when it was feasible but did not feel obliged to support others when they were not in a financial position to do so.
Multiple young people also explicitly mentioned God and/or referenced the Bible in explaining their motivation for supporting others. Another set of responses made relatively simple statements indicating they were supporting someone out of love or kindness. These statements were not always explicitly linked to ‘warm glow’ feelings discussed in literature on altruism (Andreoni Citation1990), that giving the support made the young person happy or was linked to expectations of future benefit for themselves. Finally, a set of responses spoke about the young person’s or their family’s reputation. These youth were motivated to provide support to avoid others’ negative impressions. Some also indicated enjoying a favourable reputation as a result of supporting others.
In addition to the eight types of motivations presented in , there were other reasons, mentioned by just one person each, which did not fall neatly into the other categories. While not the dominant themes among our respondents, these additional reasons underscore the diversity of motivations and need to expand existing classifications. We therefore include them here so they may be considered in future work in this area. These additional reasons included:
‘It strengthens our friendship’ (male, age 20)
‘If I don’t support [my siblings’ schooling], in the future, they might become a burden unto me. And when I support them to get on their feet, I live safe’ (male, age 21)
‘When I have, I give [to my girlfriend] so that she doesn’t go to another man for money’ (male, age 25)
‘I have to make [my siblings, mother, uncle and cousins] feel comfortable so that they can also have their peace of mind’ (male, age 24)
Youth articulate multiple motivations for supporting the same person
Some narratives included standalone statements that gave one rationale for supporting a specific person, some of which are presented in . Nearly one-quarter of statements, however, included multiple reasons for supporting the same recipient or group of people. For instance:
‘What happened is that my father gave birth to us and could not take care of us, so when he left we were very young. We grew up with our mother but now she doesn’t have the strength to work and feed our family. So, since I am available, I have to take over the responsibility to help my mum take care of the family. I had to go and work and get enough money. … I want to do this to show that my mum has done a lot for us. She has worked a lot and I could see that she put in effort to help us’ (male, age 25) (referencing need, duty and reciprocity/returning support).
‘I am supporting [my children] so that they will not have difficulties in the future. I have brought them into this world, so it is my duty to support them. It makes me happy’ (female, age 22) (referencing enabling a good future and duty).
‘If I don’t give [my mother and siblings] the support, they don’t have any place they would go and do work to go get money and help themselves. But for me, I have a cocoa farm and a motorbike business, therefore, I am supposed to be helping them. My brothers in Accra [the capital] do help us but it’s not every month. … they are my family, I cannot leave them and the way I am helping them is good for me too because my mother is the one who gave birth to me so now if she is suffering I wouldn’t allow her to suffer’ (male, age 20) (referencing need, ability, duty and reciprocity/returning support).
Among the eight categories, there were a range of combinations. Two, in particular, are worth noting. Among respondent statements that cited multiple reasons for supporting others, they mentioned need more often than other reason. And, with two exceptions, financial ability to support others was always mentioned in addition to another reason. Both of these reasons are more directly linked to financial status – that of the recipient (need) or the young person providing support (financial ability). The pattern that these motivations more often accompany another reason underscores the relational nature of support, that it is not driven solely by financial factors.
Motivations varied by relationship type and by youth gender
More common than articulating multiple motivations for supporting the same person, young people provided different motivations depending on who they were supporting. As noted in the previous section, youth narratives reference 16 different types of people to whom they provided support. These relationships spanned four generations: grandparents, parents and uncles/aunts, peers (spouses, friends), and children. Relationship types included immediate, extended and non-family.
Figure 1 illustrates the dominant reason(s) youth cited for supporting the types of family members they mentioned most often and for supporting non-family members. This reflects how young people are situated within intergenerational, interdependent networks. In a simplistic way, it also depicts how we are bridging several strands of research, depicted in the centre, outer circle and linkages between them: focusing on young people (youth transitions literature) as contributing members within intergenerational families and communities (grounded in African sociology), and aiming to clarify the support roles they play (intra and inter-household resource exchange).
In distinguishing the types of support roles, responses were most consistent for vertical relationships with mothers and children. In contrast, motivations for supporting other types of family members were more varied. When discussing support to mothers (occasionally referring to parents), reciprocity/returning support was mentioned most often. Youth also talked about addressing mothers’ needs by filling gaps as a result of decreased support from others. Unsurprisingly, enabling a good future and anticipating long-term future benefits (reciprocity) were mentioned more frequently than any other type of motivation for supporting children.
Balanced reciprocity was a common motivation for supporting their spouses. Other reasons for support differed by gender. In addition to balanced reciprocity, females also spoke about providing complementary support alongside their husbands to fulfil family needs. Males spoke about duty to support their wives.
Across relationship types, there was a greater variety of reasons given for supporting siblings. These reasons included all three subtypes of need, duty, balanced reciprocity, anticipation of future benefit and financial ability. Siblings were often mentioned in relation to the respondent’s age (i.e. older, younger), suggesting that siblings were sometimes perceived as more similar to parents or children rather than peers. This may reflect large age differences and roles that older siblings are expected to play in caregiving. It could in part account for the greater variation in rationales for this particular relationship type.
Comparing responses between family and non-family members, need and reputation was more commonly discussed in relation to immediate family members. Generalised reciprocity and religion were more often mentioned as reasons for supporting non-family members like friends and community members.
Notably, youth very infrequently spoke about supporting their fathers, compared to mothers and other immediate family members, extended family members (including uncles), friends and other people in the community. They did, however, mention fathers when talking about providing support to fulfil needs because of decreased, absent or insufficient support for others from their parents, including fathers.
Comparing response patterns by the gender of the youth participants, it is important to note that each of the eight motivation types were mentioned by both males and females. This pattern suggests that our proposed typology may be broadly applicable. It may also reflect shifting gender norms in Ghana where male and female roles are less strictly delineated than for previous generations.
That said, some rationales for supporting others were more gendered than others. Similar proportions of males and females discussed balanced and generalised reciprocity. More females than males mentioned providing complementary support to address a need, giving examples of supplementing the support of their parents for their siblings and supplementing what their husbands could provide to care for their children and manage their home. In addition, more females than males spoke about enabling a good future for children and anticipating longer-term future benefits for themselves, suggesting a more future orientation and focus on younger generations.
On the other hand, significantly more males than females discussed reciprocity/returning support, duty, fulfilling a need in the absence of others or as a result of decreased support, and financial ability. These motivations reflect traditional male roles as providers for the family. Fulfilling needs in response to declining or absent support from others may signal role transitions as youth progressively assume greater responsibilities that their parents, older relatives and siblings may have previously been covering. More males also mentioned kindness, reputation, religion, although fewer people overall cited these reasons, so these comparisons are limited due to smaller numbers.
Discussion and conclusion
These findings reveal an important, often overlooked aspect of young people’s transitions – the roles they play in society as providers for their family and community, and the multi-faceted drivers of this financial and in-kind support. Young people’s narratives reveal a nuanced set of motivations and tacit interpretations of the dynamic roles they play. The narratives reflect the cultural context in which they are living, which is both rooted in longstanding traditions and continually adapting to economic and social shifts. Together, these findings suggest that both the youth transitions and sociology literature could benefit from expanding existing conceptions of young people’s roles within family and community networks, more explicitly acknowledging their position within intergenerational networks and the support that young people provide to others. Moreover, because of our focus on young people and on a broader range of relationship types, we were able to uncover a more diverse and detailed set of reasons they offered support, highlighting the need to expand current understandings of the nature of support networks and resource exchange.
Expanding conceptions of young people’s roles within family and community networks
To our knowledge, our study is one of the first to focus on young people as providers, rather than transitioning dependents. The few studies that examine the role of family in youth transitions are focused on how family members support, or do not support, the young person (Conger and Little Citation2010, Hardgrove, McDowell, and Rootham Citation2015; Vogt Citation2020). Instead, we document how youth in rural Ghana provide financial and in-kind support an extensive range of people across four generations. This support was not limited to relationship types that are considered markers of youth transitions – spouses and children – or, targeted towards the elderly. Rather, we offer a more holistic picture of the intergenerational and community networks in which young people are embedded and clarify the many types of support roles they play.
The diversity of young people’s support roles is evident in the 4 types of reciprocity and 3 ways in which they helped to fulfil need, the variation in their rationales depending on their relationship to the recipient and the patterns across genders. Young people’s provision of support to address a need was often directly related to declining, absent or insufficient support provided by others, frequently parents or spouses. Therefore, it appears that the way that young people perceive their roles and level of responsibility may be based as much on the circumstances of others in their lives as it is on their individual situation. This offers a new perspective on youth transitions, which often implicitly treat the lives of others as static, with little attention to transitions around young people that may trigger new roles for them, in addition to their own developmental changes.
The specific types of reciprocity and rationales for supporting mothers and children link young people most clearly to previous and future generations. These findings are perhaps the least surprising. The more varied and nuanced types of horizontal resource exchange and support among siblings, spouses and friends provide more novel insights, and these support roles are worth exploring further.
The gender patterns we detected provide additional evidence of scholars’ characterisation of the shifting yet rooted nature of contemporary gender norms in Ghana. Kutsoati and Morck (Citation2014), for example, emphasise the ‘tenacity’ of Ghanaian cultural traditions. Arnot and colleagues (Citation2012) discuss the contingent nature of gradually expanding opportunities for young women in rural Ghana, observing that ‘change – when it comes – is almost always partial, hesitant and negotiated (191). Our youth narratives reflect both traditional and evolving gender roles. The tenacity of traditional roles is evident with more males speaking about duty and more females referring to a good future for their children and providing complementary support to fulfil needs. At the same time, balanced reciprocity was common among both genders and there were no examples where a reason was mentioned by only one gender, signalling that there is overlap in the roles that male and female youth take on.
The lack of discussion of fathers in young people’s responses, relative to other family members including other adult males, is notable and needs more investigation. Ardayfio-Schandorf and colleagues (1995) write about absent fathers as a result of divorce, desertion and migration, men’s negligence of duty and knock-on effects for their children, spouses and families. This characterisation may be true for some of our participants but requires more direct follow up to clarify the nature of the relationship young people had with their fathers and how this may change as they transition into adulthood. Our findings, however, are able to document how absent and declining support affects young people’s increased responsibilities to others.
Expanding current understandings of support networks and resource exchange
Exploring young people’s support roles in intergenerational and community networks has also enabled us to create a more detailed typology of motivations than currently exists, with potential relevance beyond this age group. Youth narratives reveal 8 dominant motivations, with further subtypes of need and reciprocity, as well as several other less common reasons that did not fit neatly into the other categories.
There were some similarities between our typology of motivations and those identified in previous studies with adults, particularly reciprocity and duty. Across the literature, the breadth of reasons Nukunya (Citation1992) identifies is perhaps the closest to the range of motivations in our typology, although he does not mention empirical sources or discuss young people specifically. Unlike classifications that are common in the economics literature, young people did not characterise resource exchange in terms of mutual insurance or pooled resources for investment (Kazianga Citation2006; Hussein and Kajiba Citation2011). Instead, they spoke more generally about expectations of reciprocal support from others in the near or long-term.
Our respondents more explicitly articulated the existence of need, which is not discussed in such a forthright manner in other studies as in these youth narratives. As noted, this may in part reflect our study context and need for basic essentials; however, this reason would also apply to lower-income households in high-income countries. Several other categories may also be particularly influenced by the rural Ghanaian context in which our research was conducted. The prominence of reciprocity and duty as motivations is consistent with characterisations of interdependent kinship networks (Nukunya Citation1992; Ardayfio-Schandorf Citation1995; Aboderin Citation2004; Kutsoati and Morck Citation2014; Kpoor Citation2015; Dzradmedo, Amoako, and Amos Citation2018). The distinction between four types of reciprocity may not have been detected had we not focused on a broad set of intergenerational and non-family relationships, with generalised reciprocity more evident in the latter and the other three with the former.
Although mentioned less frequently, religion as a driver of support is also very much grounded in context, as is the statement of one young man about supporting his girlfriend so that she does not go to another man for money. As noted in the methods section, the vast majority of Ghanaians identify with a specific religion, proportions which have risen in the last 2 decades and are higher among young adults. Ghanaian scholars have described the foundational role that religion has traditionally played, especially at life milestones (Opoku Citation1978), and despite shifting forms and denominations over time, the influence it continues to have (Assimeng Citation2010). Additionally, Ankomah (Citation1996) documents the (sometimes unfulfilled) expectations of young Ghanaian women that their boyfriends offer financial support and gifts, confirming our participant’s assumption.
In addition to reflecting the cultural context in which our work was conducted, several categories in the typology may also relate to our study population of young adults. As mentioned, fulfilling gaps as a result of declining or absent support from others may reflect how young people are assuming greater responsibilities over time. At the same time, complementary support to fulfil needs and financial ability rationales indicate that these respondents do not perceive themselves to be solely or predominantly responsible for providing support. Their status as young people may offer them more flexibility in choosing when, who, how and how much to support others. Testing this typology in other contexts and study populations will help to further refine the categories and determine which motivations are more universal and which are more relevant in some settings, age groups or life stages than others. Regardless, our work suggests that existing classifications of resource exchange are incomplete and would benefit from greater specificity.
Finally, our findings not only document more reasons than are typically discussed in the literature on inter- and intra-household support, we also find that some young people offered multiple reasons for supporting the same person. Rather than competing explanations, young people spoke about their reasons as complementary. This reinforces Schokkaert’s (Citation2006) argument against false dichotomies of self-interest and altruism. It provides evidence that the assumptions underlying econometric models which test motivations for resource exchange as competing hypotheses may be flawed. Despite the time that has passed since Schokkart’s critique, if anything, these types of analyses have become even more common, so our finding is particularly relevant to that field of work.
Exploring new directions
Given the paucity of research on young people as providers, our research offers a departure point for a wealth of future questions that could be explored. In addition to testing our typology in other settings, the relationships among each of the motivations is worth examining further. Specifically, the connection between financial (need, ability) and more relational factors (reciprocity, duty, good future for others, kindness, reputation) needs to be better understood.
Although we were able to interview young people at three-time points, studies over longer periods of time (i.e. years), would be particularly helpful in understanding the way in which balanced reciprocity manifests itself among more horizontal relationships (siblings, spouses and friends). It would enable scholars to examine the extent to which and how economic and social exchanges vary over time, in response to what types of external conditions, and with what effects, in terms of youth pathways, financial status and overall well-being for both the recipient and the provider. Gender roles and power dynamics should be asked about more explicitly in future work in order to better understand how they influence young people’s experiences and expectations about their roles, and to document how this may be changing over time. There were some concepts like burden, safety and peace of mind that were only mentioned by one participant but may be worth exploring in greater depth. Relatedly, we have only focused on financial and in-kind support, not emotional or social support, which is an important way in which people care for one another and may be complementary or in lieu of the type of support we have documented.
As we have discussed throughout, the rural Ghanaian context in which our respondents are living is an integral element of their interpretations and motivations. Cooper and colleagues (Citation2019) have recently called for a shift in the field of youth studies towards contextually grounded theory and research of and for the Global South; our work directly contributes to this goal. Our findings may be less generalisable to urban youth in Ghana or to other country settings where family and kinship networks may be weaker. However, there are many contexts worldwide where extended family and community relationships play an influential role. There is also increasing recognition of the role of family in high income countries, particularly in tight labour markets and times of economic downturn (Hardgrove, McDowell, and Rootham Citation2015).
The relative lack of attention in the youth transitions literature to the people in young people’s lives is a notable oversight that needs to be corrected. Within different cultural and economic contexts, there will likely be a range of configurations of family and social networks. Examining young people’s dynamic positions within them and the choices youth make and why offers underexplored opportunities to better understand transition pathways and more broadly, the active, influential roles youth play in society.
The authors would like to thank the young people who have been part of this tracer study for generously sharing their experiences and insights. We are grateful to the dedicated fieldwork team: Emmanuel Ayisi Manu, Prince Adu-Appiah, Kwabena Kobia Mensah, Vicentia Osei, Victoria Johnson, Mary Doris Dwumah, Sylvia Sena Djisah, Barbara Kumi, Lois Antwi-Boadi, Abigail Assuamah Yeboah, Patrick Sakyi Wilson, Selom Deku, Clara Opoku Agyemang, the MASO youth facilitators, Belinda Acheampong, Helen Nti and Ethel Seiwaa Boateng. We thank our colleagues at MASO/Solidaridad, PDA and ODI for their ongoing support for this work.
Nathaniel Amoh Boateng is employed by Solidaridad West Africa, which implemented the MASO training programme. At the time of writing, Anne Buffardi and Victoria Ampiah worked for organisations that served as a ‘learning partner’ for the MASO programme. We declare no other financial conflicts of interest.
This study was approved by the Participatory Development Associates Ethical Review Committee, PDA ERC No: 005/19.
1 To be eligible to participate in the training programme, youth were between the ages of 17–25 at enrolment. Alongside each quote, we report their age at the time of that interview round, between 2–4 years since enrolment.
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Published online: 16 Mar 2023