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General Social Survey: How social networks help Canadians deal with major change

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Despite changing family structures, the geographic dispersion of families and increased dependence on the Internet as a source of information, Canadians identified the family as the most helpful resource in an individual's social network during times of major change.

Major change was a relatively common experience for most Canadians in 2008. Most frequently reported types of transitions included changes to finances, employment, health, parenting or childcare, and care of a sick or disabled person.

For young adults and those in the career and family formation life stage, the Internet was a commonly used social network resource, usually in addition to turning to people. Conversely, seniors coping with change turned more frequently to neighbours and religious organizations as a resource than did younger Canadians.

Family is the social network most helpful at any life stage

The majority (57%) of the 4.5 million young adults aged 20 to 29 experienced a major change in the 12 months prior to the survey. Young adults viewed change as a positive experience for the most part, and used many parts of their social networks to deal with it. Most (52%) said their family was the most helpful resource, followed by close friends (12%).

Of the 7.1 million individuals aged 30 to 44, many of whom are in the career and family formation stage of life, one half experienced a major life transition in the last 12 months. For those coping with change, the resource most frequently cited as most helpful was family, followed by close friends and professionals.

Major life change was reported less frequently (40%) for the approximately 9 million individuals in the mid-life stage (aged 45 to 64). While family was viewed as the most helpful social resource for change in general for this group, professional resources (including doctors) were the most commonly cited social network resource accessed for health related changes.

Note to readers

This release is based on an article in the June 2009 issue of Canadian Social Trends that uses data collected by Cycle 22 of the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted from February 1, 2008 to November 30, 2008. The data from the survey are being made available for the first time today. The GSS is an annual survey that monitors changes and emerging trends in Canadian society.

Cycle 22 collected information on social networks, as well as information on major changes in respondents' lives and the resources they used and needed during these major life transitions. This made it possible to assess the contribution of social networks in helping people cope with various types of major change.

Respondents were asked which of the following changes they had experienced during the 12 months prior to the survey: financial, employment, health, parenting or childcare, home care of a sick or disabled person, death of a loved one, education, legal matters, living arrangements, family relationships or personal achievements.

Social network resources included: family, close friends, co-workers, neighbours, local government resources, other government resources, business people, professional people, public institutions, social service or health organizations, law or justice organizations, religious organizations, other community organizations, the Internet, and other information and media resources.

About 20,000 individuals in all 10 provinces were interviewed. This article uses only data from respondents who were aged 20 and older. The sample was composed of over 19,000 respondents representing about 25 million Canadians.

In contrast, 25% of the 4.3 million seniors reported a change that had a major life impact. As a result of the types of change they experience, such as a change in health or death of a loved one, most seniors viewed change as negative. Reliance on professionals such as doctors within the social network became pronounced at this stage in life but family still continued to play the most prominent role.

Internet more common as a social network resource during early life stages

During periods of transition, one out of every four people (aged 20 or older) accessed the Internet as one component in their social network, usually in addition to turning to people in their social network.

Internet use differed across the life stages. Half of young adults and just under half (47%) of those in the career and family formation stage reported having used the Internet to deal with change. This compared with 31% of those in mid-life and 11% of seniors. This mirrors the general trend in Internet use, which shows that younger individuals are more likely to be Internet users than older Canadians.

Other social network resources used during major transitions

While family was always considered to be the most helpful resource in dealing with change, Canadians also accessed several other components of their social network as a means to cope with change. For example, about 60% of Canadians used close friends and 45% accessed the services of professionals during major life transitions.

Neighbours and religious organizations were more frequently used as a resource for seniors than for young people. Conversely, younger Canadians were more likely to access government resources when going through a major transition than were those aged 65 or older.

Definitions, data sources and methods: survey number 5024.

The article "Social networks help Canadians deal with change," is now available in the online edition of Canadian Social Trends, No. 88 (11-008-X, free), from the Publications module of our website.

An additional product with tabulations at the provincial level examining civic and political participation, sense of belonging and unpaid work is also being released today. The report 2008 General Social Survey: Selected Tables on Social Engagement (89-640-X, free) is available from the Publications module of our website.

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Client Services (613-951-5979;, Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division.