Grandparent Power

25th March 2016

Jennifer Lipman explains how grandparents are more involved with their grandchildren’s day to day care and more invaluable to their adult working children than ever before...

My parents’ home, for years clear of the paraphernalia of young family life, is once again brimming with high-chairs, nappies, miniature cars and brightly coloured cutlery. With four grandchildren under the age of three, my parents’ lives are punctuated by days spent looking after the kids, while my sisters and their husbands are at work.

Not that they’re unique. In fact, they’re just two foot-soldiers in a hidden army of grandparents stationed all across the UK. It’s most common in Scotland and least in London, but parents everywhere rely on gran and gramps to get them through the week, saving an estimated £8,000 a year in the process.

As Jill Rutter, Head of Policy at the Family and Childcare Trust, explains, even if parents don’t use grandparents day-to-day, ‘they’ll still use them in emergencies and if they work outside normal office hours, because there isn’t formal childcare available. It’s a big part of the economy.’ 

Indeed, the Government’s own estimate says grandparent care is worth £8bn annually, while surveys suggest that some 58% are spending their twilight years looking after the kids and that at least two million have cut their work hours to assist. According to Grandparents Plus, two million parents say they would have to give up work without this support.  

Grandparents have always helped out, of course; there have always been mothers in the workplace, for example in factories or below stairs. And back in the 1970s and 1980, when female employment exploded, there was no state provision of childcare. ‘Grandparents really filled the gap,’ says Rutter. ‘We’ve had an expansion of formal childcare and support systems since about 1998. There are many more nursery places, and you can claim back through childcare vouchers and tax credits.’ 

As a result, grandparents’ day-to-day role has largely decreased. But the grandparent economy is still booming, because with childcare costs soaring – up 27% in five years, according to one survey – it often represents the only real ‘option’, either for the whole week or as a ‘top-up’ reducing the overall bill. 

Gransnet editor Cari Rosen regularly hears from retirees looking after grandchildren ‘because otherwise the parents would simply not be able to afford to do their jobs’. Over the last decade that’s been particularly pronounced, she adds, because in addition to more mothers wanting to work, the recession has meant that most have to. Nowadays, only the wealthiest can manage on one salary.

The rise in single parent families is also a factor; as Rutter points out, they use more formal and more informal childcare. Grandparent support can be utterly essential. The flip-side, of course, is that lone parents may only be able to call on one side of the family. 

But while grandparent care may primarily be a financial decision, it’s motivated by multiple factors. For one, the ‘options’ even for those who can pay remain inflexible and ill-suited to parents working long hours, through the night or in shifts. Added to that is the not insignificant value placed on a child spending their early years with a trusted relative (who may be a dab hand at photography too, to capture the moments that mum and dad are missing).

Studies suggest that there are benefits to bringing up children in a home environment, and certainly few downsides in terms of development (although research has found that children cared for by grandparent are more likely to be obese, perhaps because grandparents can be easily convinced to bring out the sweeties). And in an era when multiple generations are unlikely to live together, it can stave off loneliness and strengthen family relationships.  ‘In most cases it’s extremely healthy,’ says Lisa Harris from Saga. ‘It allows grandparents to share their lives with grandchildren in a way they’d otherwise be unable to do.’

Yet it can also place a strain on relationships. Childcare isn’t easy at the best of times and for grandparents – lacking the same ability to set rules, and perhaps physically less energetic – there are challenges. They may well have different views to parents about when bedtime is, not to mention the questions over who should foot the bill for outings. 

Likewise, if grandparents are expected to be available at the drop of that hat, it can build resentment. ‘Disappointed by my parents’ complained one Mumsnetter after her parents declined to look after child number two. ‘Our children’s generation do rather take it for granted that we are available at any time and for as long as they require,’ read one of several unimpressed responses on Gransnet. ‘We have lives beyond being parents and grandparents.’

‘If you feel pressured into taking on childcare when you don’t really want to, if suddenly you’re stuck having to take holidays to fit in with school – so they end up costing double – these things can sour a relationship,’ says Rosen. She advises grandparents to be upfront from the outset about what they can manage. ‘And remember that small children are germ magnets and have a delightful habit of sharing.’

Nor is it just a question of whether childcare interferes with the weekly bridge game. Many grandmothers – for it’s still mostly women – are working late into their 60s. For them, it’s a decision about taking a career break and whether, as Rosen says, they are ‘happy to swap a working life and everything that goes with it for Lego and nursery rhyme sessions’. And if they are, there are still huge financial ramifications around cutting hours to consider. ‘It’s important for people to consider whether changing their working patterns is likely to have an impact on their retirement income,’ cautions Harris.

In October the Chancellor announced plans to extend shared parental leave and pay to grandparents by 2018. For single parents – indeed for many people – it could be a lifeline. ‘It recognises grandparents’ vital caring role and offers greater choice for families about balancing work and childcare,’ says Lucy Peake, chief executive of Grandparents Plus, adding that support for flexible working is also needed. ‘Enabling grandparents to work and care for their grandchildren would make a huge difference to families and the economy.’

Yet Working Families have cast doubt on whether the scheme will work, warning that it could be counterproductive so soon after leave was extended to fathers. ‘The biggest barrier to take-up is concerns about complexity,’ they say. Equally, as Rosen points out, statutory pay is rarely a substitute for the salary of someone who has climbed the career ladder.

To Harris, the issue is that new mothers often feel they have no choice but to leave the workplace at a crucial juncture. ‘There should be ways to encourage them to remain in work,’ she says, suggesting that new parents are instead helped give a financial contribution directly to grandparents.

In any case, newborn care is only the tip of the iceberg; grandparents are as likely to be prevailed upon during lengthy school holidays, or when a child is home sick. The priority, says Rutter, should be boosting flexible services ‘for those who don’t have grandparents that they can turn to’.

As time passes, these discussions may become redundant. ‘With women now having to wait for longer to receive their state pension, the risk of taking time out from work to look after grandchildren is likely to become a much bigger decision,’ Harris points out. And perhaps more importantly, there are likely to be fewer grandparents poised to provide childcare, due to increased retirement migration, a more mobile population, and, above all, the fact British women are having children later than women elsewhere. Even with rising life expectancy, grandparents may simply be unable to help.

For now, though, grandparent care looks likely to remain a mainstay of British life, as it is across similar European economies. After all, says Rutter, ‘it’s something that has gone on since the dawn of humanity.’

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