The era of the "new" grandparent

The ratio of grandparents to children is higher than ever. This has far-reaching consequences


In France, we overlook a dimension that is becoming increasingly important in our society: the role of grandparents. Today, the role of grandparent has changed radically. Two major demographic trends are making grannies and grandpas more important. Firstly, people are living longer. Secondly, because families are getting smaller. The approaching end-of-year festivities take on a particular symbolism and aspect, as the vast majority of families gather at the same time, fulfilling a function of identity or cohesion. What is the role of grandparents in today's society? Let's take a trip around the world to discover the "new grandparents".

Global life expectancy has risen from 51 to 72 years since 1960. Over the same period, the number of babies a woman can expect to have in her lifetime has halved, from 5 to 2.4. This means that the ratio of living grandparents to children continues to rise. Surprisingly little research has been done on this subject. The British daily The Economist asked Diego Alburez-Gutiérrez, from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, to produce estimates by cross-referencing age and population data with models of kinship structures in each country. 

There are 1.5 billion grandparents in the world today, compared with 0.5 billion in 1960. As a percentage of the population, they have risen from 17 % to 20 %. And the ratio of grandparents to children under 15 has risen from 0.46 in 1960 to 0.8 today.

By 2050, demographers at the Max Planck Institute estimate that there will be 2.1 billion grandparents (or 22 % of humanity), and slightly more grandparents than children under 15. This will have far-reaching consequences. There's evidence that children do better with the help of grandparents - which, in practice, usually means grandmothers. A growing phenomenon that will undoubtedly contribute to another unfinished social revolution: women's transition to paid work.

As fertility rates and life expectancy vary enormously from country to country, the era of the grandparent has not yet arrived everywhere. There are 29% of Bulgarians, but only 10% of Burundians. Their average age also varies widely, from 53 in Uganda to 72 in Japan (see graph 2). To understand the impact of grandparents in numbers, we need to start with a country where they are still rare.

Take Senegal, for example. Most rural Senegalese are subsistence farmers. Although fertility has fallen from 7.3 babies per woman in 1980 to 4.5 today, large families are still the norm. Children under 15 outnumber living grandparents by a factor of 3.5.

Why not enjoy unlimited reading of UP'? Subscribe from €1.90 per week.

Amy Diallo, an 84-year-old matriarch wrapped in a blue and white hijab, must think hard when asked how many children she has. " Thirty!" she concludes, looking up from her cross-legged position on the floor of her house in Tally Boubess, outside Dakar, the capital, on a street where horses and carts jostle sheep and cars.

As the oldest member of her family, she commands respect. She gives moral advice to young people: be honest and pious, respect tradition and stop hitting your little brother. Every year, she organizes a family pilgrimage to Tivaouane, a Muslim holy city, with her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and various in-laws, perhaps a hundred in all.

Grandparents pass on traditional beliefs, stories, songs and a sense of history. More prosaically, they bring an extra pair of hands. This helps both parents and children. A study in rural Gambia, for example, found that the presence of a maternal grandmother significantly increased a child's chances of living to the age of two. In sub-Saharan Africa, the chances of going to school are around 15 % higher for children living with a grandfather, and 38 % higher for those living with a grandmother.

As for Mrs. Diallo, she never worked outside the home. But she has helped some of her children to do so. Ndeye, one of her daughters, got a job in an office even though she had eight children of her own, because Mrs Diallo helped her look after the children.

For all her love and sense of duty, Mrs Diallo can't look after her 30 grandchildren. And what's more, the state doesn't help her much. Unlike Ndeye, many of Mrs. Diallo's daughters and granddaughters have never worked outside the home. This situation is commonplace: in Senegal, barely a third of working-age women have a job or are looking for one. Grandparents in poorer countries do their best, but there aren't enough of them.

She's there when you need her

In wealthier countries, fertility has declined much more than in Africa. A typical Mexican woman, for example, can expect to have just two children, compared with almost seven in 1960. In Mexico, the ratio between the number of living grandparents and the number of children is three times higher than in Senegal. Mexican abuelas therefore have more time to devote to each grandchild.

Irma Aguilar Verduzco lives with her daughter, also called Irma, and her two grandchildren, Rodrigo and Fernanda. She cooks, goes to school and reads with her grandchildren. Since the age of three, Rodrigo, now 16, has enjoyed a cup of coffee and a chat with his grandmother. Fernanda, now 12, always likes to get into bed with her. Irma junior, meanwhile, has long worked 12-hour days, currently as manager of the Maya Train, a major rail project. She is divorced, and says her ex-husband "doesn't help". She "couldn't have done anything" without Irma senior's help.

Grandmothers are the main source of non-parental care for young children in Mexico, especially since Covid-19 forced many crèches to close. They look after almost 40% of kids under the age of six. Before Grandma moved in, Irma was in trouble. " No understanding or flexibility for working mothers in Mexico" she complains. Her children were often home alone. " Sometimes I paid people to look after them, but it was hard to pay and hard to trust people." . One day, years ago, Rodrigo came home from nursery with a broken bone; Irma suspects mistreatment. With her mother by her side, she feels relaxed.

Miguel Talamas, of the Inter-American Development Bank, and his colleagues set out to assess the extent to which Mexican grandmothers help their daughters find paid work. They looked at what happened to families after the grandmothers died. The death of an abuela reduced the probability of her daughter being in the labor force by 27 %, or 12 percentage points, and reduced her income by 53 %. (The same study found no effect on fathers' employment rates).

Living with grandparents isn't always easy. They may have outdated ideas or demand too much deference. In India, where couples traditionally live with the husband's parents, a hit TV soap revolves around the strained relationship between wives and mothers-in-law. A 2018 survey of rural Indian women found that those who lived with their mummyji (mother-in-law) had little freedom. Only 12 % of them were allowed to visit friends or relatives alone.

To fight against disinformation and to favour analyses that decipher the news, join the circle of UP' subscribers.

A grandmother who applies old-fashioned standards of female submission can make it harder for her daughter-in-law to work outside the home. But an interesting study shows that, on average, this effect is offset by the help the mother-in-law provides with domestic chores. This help has become more concentrated as India's fertility rate has fallen from six in 1960 to just over two today. Madhulika Khanna, from Amazon, and Divya Pandey, from 3ie, a think tank, looked at what happened to Indian women if their mom died. They found that daughters-in-law were 10% less likely to do or seek paid work, probably because they had to spend more time collecting firewood and looking after their children. Even authoritarian grandmothers can inadvertently contribute to women's emancipation.

Wealthy countries generally offer services that help women juggle childcare and work. But many parents still require extra help from grandparents. Old-age pensions contribute to this, by enabling grandparents to give up work. According to one study, 50 % of very young children, 35 % of elementary school-age children and 20 % of American teenagers spend time with their grandparents in a typical week.

It can make a big difference. Janice Compton, from the University of Manitoba, and Robert Pollak, from the University of Washington, analyzed U.S. Census data and found that living within 20 km of a grandmother increased the activity rate of married women with young children by 4 to 10 percentage points.

The "nanny grandmother", as some people call her, can also have its drawbacks. A British study found that grandparents are more likely to leave their children at the mercy of fire hazards than crèches or nannies. American, British, Chinese and Japanese studies suggest that a child surrounded by grandparents is more likely to be obese, although whether this is due to generosity with treats or other factors is unclear.

A kind of compromise

And if grandmothers are helping their daughters back into the workforce, it often means they're opting out themselves. A kind of compromise. Back in Mexico, Hermelinda Coapango Vázquez works as a manicurist, but only takes appointments at times that allow her to look after her grandson. " My grandson is my life" she says. " I don't have a partner and I'm not the type to have many friends." . A Brazilian study revealed that when children aged 0-3 were randomly assigned formal care, the family collectively earned more, mainly because grandparents and older siblings were freed up to work.

Another pitfall is that families who rely heavily on the grandmother for childcare are less likely to move and find a better job. A study by Eva Garcia-Moran of the University of Wurzburg and Zoe Kuehn of the Autonomous University of Madrid found that West German women who lived near their parents' in-laws earned around 5 % less and commuted longer than their counterparts.

Children raised solely or mainly by grandparents tend to be worse off than their peers. In the USA, where around 2 % of children are raised primarily by a grandparent, Laura Pittman of Northern Illinois University found that these teenagers had more emotional and behavioral problems than their peers. Perhaps this is not surprising. If children don't live with their parents, it's often because something has gone wrong: a father in prison, a mother dead or incapacitated. However, in these circumstances, living with a grandparent is usually far better than the alternatives.

In rural China, grandparents help reduce the damage caused by the government. Under the apartheid-like hukou (household registration) system, rural Chinese who move to the city are treated as second-class citizens. As their children have no access to local public schools, they often stay with their grandparents in their parents' home village. But rural schools are often disastrous. Grandparents, though well-intentioned, are often barely literate. Scott Rozelle of Stanford University finds that more than half the toddlers in rural China are cognitively delayed, partly because their grandparents don't realize how important it is to talk to them.

In China's cities, the situation is different. The one-child policy (which will become a three-child policy in 2021) has always been applied more strictly in the cities than in the countryside. As a result, many urban families are made up of four grandparents, two parents and a single child. So there's no shortage of caring hands. Urban children often live with grandparents during the week and see their hard-working parents at weekends.

Cribs are expensive and distrusted in China. Grandmothers often retire in their fifties to look after their precious only grandchild. This works quite well. China's female labor force participation rate is, at 62%, slightly higher than America's. " If you want to give your child a good education, you have to work hard to earn a lot of money." explains Zhou Bao, architect and mother of a "4-2-1" family who has called on both grandparents for childcare. But "by earning money, you can lose the time you spend with your child". And she expresses a common fear that grandparents tend to spoil their only grandchildren. " They can be too attentive" she says, " which makes them less independent"

The Communist Party promotes traditional values, such as family members taking care of each other so the state doesn't have to. In Beijing, the government even set up a school in 2005 to teach grandparents how to take better care of children. But the next generation may not wish to take on the same responsibilities. Few middle-class parents today expect to be raising their children's children in a few decades' time," says Dan Wang of Hang Seng Bank. If they forgo becoming grandparents, it could be harder for their daughters to combine motherhood and work, Dan fears.

"Stay a while"

Overall, looking after children seems to be a good thing for grandparents. Those who spend time with their grandchildren report lower levels of depression and loneliness. But you can have too much of a good thing. Young people can be exhausting, frustrating and objectionable. A Singapore study of mainly Chinese families found that many looked after their grandchildren more out of duty than pleasure. Many find the task more difficult as they grow older. Some are caught in the "big sandwich generation" - having to help both their grandchildren and their own ailing parents. Some aspire to a more relaxing retirement. Grandma Irma in Mexico admits she would like to travel more as her grandchildren become more independent.

Un pays où les grands-parents ont tout le loisir de se détendre est la Suède, où un État-providence fort fait que les parents comptent rarement sur eux. Pour chaque enfant, un couple suédois peut prendre 16 mois de congé parental, pendant lesquels l’État leur verse la majeure partie de leur salaire antérieur. (L’homme doit prendre trois mois, sinon ils sont perdus ; beaucoup partagent le congé à parts égales). Ensuite, il existe des crèches subventionnées, et la norme est que les deux parents reprennent le travail. Comme les services de garde d’enfants sont présents partout, les Suédois trouvent qu’il est relativement facile de changer de ville pour trouver un meilleur emploi.

De temps en temps, un grand-parent peut aller chercher un enfant à l’école maternelle ou le garder, mais pas toujours« , explique Andreas Bergh de l’université de Lund. Plutôt que de permettre à une fille de retourner au travail, les grands-parents peuvent lui permettre de sortir dîner avec son mari. L’aide des grands-parents est « un bonus », estime Andreas Heino de Timbro, un groupe de réflexion de Stockholm.

Une assiette bien remplie

Les subventions pour le congé parental sont si généreuses que même les entrepreneurs en prennent une bonne partie. Sandra Kastås dirige deux entreprises à Stockholm. Lorsque son fils est né en 2021, elle a pris deux mois de congé, puis a passé un an à mi-temps, tout comme son mari, un informaticien. Malgré son emploi du temps surchargé, Mme Kastås n’attend pas d’aide régulière de ses parents. Ils vivent à Gotland, une île isolée, et ne lui rendent pas souvent visite. Sa mère « montre son amour en envoyant des cadeaux », comme des livres et des pulls qu’elle a tricotés. Elle parle à son petit-fils, sur FaceTime. « Il serre le téléphone dans ses bras quand elle appelle. C’est mignon« , dit Mme Kastås.

La plupart des Suédois sont satisfaits de leur système. Mais certaines personnes âgées se plaignent de la solitude. Près de la moitié des ménages suédois sont composés d’une seule personne, soit le taux le plus élevé d’Europe après la Finlande. Sur une population de 10,4 millions d’habitants, quelque 900 000 personnes ont plus de 60 ans et vivent seules. Parmi elles, un cinquième sont considérées comme socialement isolées, ce qui signifie qu’elles ne rencontrent pas leurs amis ou leur famille plus de deux fois par mois. Pendant la pandémie, les Suédois ont plaisanté sombrement en disant qu’il serait facile d’isoler les personnes âgées parce que « de toute façon, nous ne rendons pas beaucoup visite à nos grands-parents. » Les immigrés venus d’endroits comme l’Afrique ou le Moyen-Orient sont souvent choqués de voir à quel point les familles suédoises sont atomisées.

Lars Tragardh, un historien, fait l’éloge de « l’individualisme étatiste » de la Suède. L’État s’occupe des gens en tant qu’individus, afin qu’ils puissent faire leurs propres choix et ne pas avoir à compter sur les autres, dit-il. Dans d’autres pays, les parents envient l’aide que reçoivent leurs homologues nordiques, malgré les impôts plus élevés nécessaires pour la financer. Pourtant, même l’État-providence le plus généreux ne peut offrir l’amour.

Helena Paues, qui travaille pour une association de collectivités locales en Suède, décrit comment son père aime emmener son fils dyslexique, Wille, dans les musées. « Il aime l’histoire et la science. Je pense que son grand-père l’a emmené dans tous les musées de Stockholm : le musée des sciences, le musée des Vikings, etc. Ils ont un lien très étroit. Mon père a aussi eu du mal à apprendre à lire et à écrire quand il était jeune"

L’été, les petits-enfants séjournent dans la maison d’été de leurs grands-parents, se baignent dans le lac et boivent de la limonade dans une cabane dans les arbres. Ils réclament à cor et à cri de faire la même chose chaque année. Mme Paues affirme que son père leur inculque des valeurs telles que le respect des autres. « Il n’a pas besoin d’en parler, il le fait en étant lui-même. Il leur apprend que leurs opinions comptent, car il les écoute. » Elle conclut : « En tant qu’enfant, vous avez besoin d’autres adultes que vos parents"

Source The Economist

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Previous article

Self-employment: a bold step towards full employment

Next article

Is the purpose of humanitarian aid a taboo subject?

Latest articles in Social changes and new solidarities



Already registered? I'm connecting

Register and read three articles for free. Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with the latest news.

→ Register for free to continue reading.



You have received 3 free articles to discover UP'.

Enjoy unlimited access to our content!

From $1.99 per week only.