The Relationship of Age to Personal Network Size, Relational Multiplexity, and Proximity to Alters in the Western United States

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Abstract

Objectives.

This study examines the association of age and other sociodemographic variables with properties of personal networks; using samples of individuals residing in the rural western United States and the City of Los Angeles, we evaluate the degree to which these associations vary with geographical context. For both samples, we test the hypothesis that age is negatively associated with network size (i.e., degree) and positively associated with network multiplexity (the extent of overlap) on 6 different relations: core discussion members, social activity participants, emergency contacts, neighborhood safety contacts, job informants, and kin. We also examine the relationship between age and spatial proximity to alters.

Method.

Our data consist of a large-scale, spatially stratified egocentric network survey containing information about respondents and those to whom they are tied. We use Poisson regression to test our hypothesis regarding degree while adjusting for covariates, including education, gender, race, and self-reported sense of neighborhood belonging. We use multiple linear regression to test our hypotheses on multiplexity and distance to alters.

Results.

For both rural and urban populations, we find a nonmonotone association between age and numbers of core discussants and emergency contacts, with rural populations also showing nonmonotone associations for social activity partners and kin. These nonmonotone relationships show a peak in expected degree at midlife, followed by an eventual decline. We find a decline in degree among the elderly for all relations in both populations. Age is positively associated with distance to nonhousehold alters for the rural population, although residential tenure is associated with shorter ego-alter distances in both rural and urban settings. Additionally, age is negatively associated with network multiplexity for both populations.

Discussion.

Although personal network size ultimately declines with age, we find that increases for some relations extend well into late-midlife and most elders still maintain numerous contacts across diverse relations. The evidence we present suggests that older people tap into an wider variety of different network members for different types of relations than do younger people. This is true even for populations in rural settings, for whom immediate access to potential alters is more limited.

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