The Age of the Grandparent

By Shlomo Maital

   My wife and I are blessed with 17 grandchildren (and one great-granddaughter, Halel).  The oldest grandchild will be 29 in April; the youngest will be three in May.  No words can describe how each of these beautiful faces brings sunshine to our lives. 

    In its latest issue, The Economist announces, “the age of the grandparent has arrived.”  China, the US and India, countries that together have about 38% of the world’s population, have between 24% and 30% of their populations who are grandparents.

    Here are some of The Economist’s observations.

     First, the numbers:  “First, people are living longer. Global life expectancy has risen from 51 to 72 since 1960. Second, families are shrinking. Over the same period, the number of babies a woman can expect to have in her lifetime has fallen by half, from 5 to 2.4. That means the ratio of living grandparents to children is steadily rising.”

     “We found that there are 1.5bn grandparents in the world, up from 0.5bn in 1960 (though the further back one goes, the fuzzier the estimates become). As a share of the population they have risen from 17% to 20%. And the ratio of grandparents to children under 15 has vaulted from 0.46 in 1960 to 0.8 today.   By 2050 we project that there will be 2.1bn grandparents (making up 22% of humanity), and slightly more grandparents than under-15s. That will have profound consequences.”

     What are these consequences?

    “The evidence suggests children do better with grandparental help—which usually, in practice, means from grandmothers. And it will help drive another unfinished social revolution—the movement of women into paid work.   Rich countries generally provide services that help women juggle child-care and work. But many parents seek extra help from grandparents nonetheless. Old-age pensions help, by allowing grandparents to give up work. According to one survey, 50% of very young children, 35% of primary-school-aged children and 20% of teens in America spend time with their grandparent in a typical week.  This can make a big difference. Janice Compton of the University of Manitoba and Robert Pollak of Washington University crunched American census data and found that living within 25 miles of a grandmother raised the labour-force participation rate for married women with small children by 4-10 percentage points.”

     “Overall,” The Economist continues, “looking after kids appears to be good for grandparents. Those who spend time with their grandchildren report lower levels of depression and loneliness. But one can have too much of a good thing. Youngsters can be exhausting, frustrating and objectionable. A study in Singapore, with mainly ethnically Chinese families, found that many looked after their grandchildren more out of duty than because they relished it. Many find it harder as they age. Some are squeezed in the “grandsandwich generation”—relied upon to help both their grandchildren and their own ailing parents. Some hanker for a more relaxing retirement.”

       In many countries, a high proportion of grandparents say they regularly look after their grandchildren:  62% in Belgium, 56% in France, and 52% in Israel.

       From my perspective as an economist, father of four, I believe children are ‘investment’ and grandchildren are ‘consumption’ (i.e. pure pleasure).

     I welcome the Age of Grandparents, and assure readers who will soon join the club, or already have:  Nothing else comes close.