NEW YORK: Of the world’s 7.6 billion people, a record-breaking 1.4 billion are grandparents.
Today’s grandparents play vital and increasingly indispensable roles in modern family life, contributing to the well-being of generations succeeding them.
Grandparents have always been an integral part of family life. During the past half-century, however, their roles have evolved as result of demographic, economic, social and technological changes taking place worldwide.
The proportion of grandparents in a population varies across countries, depending on fertility rates and life expectancy, ranging from lows of around 15 per cent in countries such as in Kenya and Pakistan to highs in excess of 25 per cent in Japan and Russia.
YOUNG AND OLD GRANDPARENTS
The proportion of women and men in a given population remaining childless reduces the potential future pool of grandmothers and grandfathers.
In many developing countries, such as India and Indonesia, the proportion of childless women in their late forties is relatively low. By contrast, in most developed countries, the number is more than double at 10 per cent.
The first childbirth of one’s offspring largely determines the age when people become grandparents. In some developed countries, the average age of women at first childbirth is close to 30 years, implying that the average age of grandmothers would be approximately double that age or about 60 years.
The level of fertility also produces age structures that help determine the relative proportion of grandparents within a given population.
High fertility countries, such as Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, have less than 10 per cent of the population above the age of 50 years. In low fertility countries, such as Germany, Italy and Japan, more than 40 per cent of the population is aged 50 years and older.
GRANDPARENTS ARE LIVING LONGER
Notable gains achieved in health and lifespans today provide women and men with more years to enjoy sustained relationships with grandchildren as they grow into adulthood.
Living to advanced ages also permits increasing numbers of grandparents, especially women who generally live longer than men, to become great-grandparents, a relatively recent phenomenon.
The global number of centenarians, 80 per cent being women, has tripled since the start of the 21st century. By the century’s close, the current number, about a half a million, is expected to increase 40-fold.
One study estimated that by the year 2030, more than 70 per cent of 8-year olds in the US are likely to have a living great-grandparent.
GRANDPARENTS HELP REDUCE CHILDCARE COST
A key familial role of grandparents in today’s modern world is providing childcare assistance to working couples and single-parent families.
Although many relatives do not want to look after young grandchildren for health, financial or personal reasons, grandparents are the most common providers of informal childcare.
Largely due to the costs, unavailability and quality of formal childcare, absences and separations of parents, and normative attitudes and traditions concerning childcare, parents frequently rely on grandparents to care for grandchildren.
Such assistance often provides an indispensable lifeline to families squeezed by limited incomes, rising childcare costs, time constraints and employment demands.
The financial savings can be considerable. In the UK, for example, grandparents save parents more than US$70 billion annually in childcare costs. In Australia, they save more than US$2 billion annually.
Such care is particularly critical for mothers with young children, especially single mothers, enabling them to enter and remain in the formal labour market. Without such support, many mothers could not participate in the labour market or pursue career goals.
Available studies show that grandmothers are more likely than grandfathers to provide childcare assistance and more time.
For many developed countries, no less than 40 per cent of grandmothers provide some childcare to their grandchildren. In the US, the UK and Romania, the large majority of grandmothers provide some childcare.
GRANDPARENTING A GLOBAL PHENOMENON
Increasing numbers of grandparents are responsible for raising grandchildren on a full-time basis. For many reasons, including parents’ substance abuse and addiction, mental illness, incarceration, family breakdown, migration and death, custodial grandparenting is a global phenomenon.
About 2 per cent of children in the US are raised by grandparents with no parent living in the home.
The Great Recession and housing crises brought many generations together. In the US, the number of grandparents living with their grandchildren increased by about a third over the past generation.
The proportion of multi-generational households in wealthy nations is once again increasing in recent years. This increase has been attributed to the economic conditions and growing numbers of foreign-born groups accustomed to living with extended families.
CARE FOR GRANDPARENTS
Many grandparents need care too as they age. Most elderly prefer to live independently in their own homes as long as possible and not to become a burden for family members.
However, growing numbers of aging grandparents, especially those with special needs, move near or in with children or to a facility providing assistance. Nearly 30 per cent of those 85 years and older have dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease the most common form.
Providing care to the elderly can be difficult and costly, taking a toll on the caregiver’s time and quality of life. Grandparents, adult children and grandchildren can anticipate and prepare for caregiving and end-of-life challenges.
Countries widely recognise grandparents’ essential roles in modern family life by officially celebrating Grandparents Day such as in Australia, Singapore, the UK, US and elsewhere.
In addition to their unconditional love, grandparents offer guidance, emotional support and financial assistance to families, helping relieve economic, social and personal stress.
Beyond their noteworthy contributions, grandparents receive considerable satisfaction from their roles, enjoying and benefiting being with family members.
Joseph Chamie is an independent consulting demographer and a former director of the United Nations Population Division. This commentary first appeared in Yale Global Online. Read it here.