the new normal or
INCREASINGLY INDISPENSABLE GRANDPARENTS
Chamie is an independent consulting demographer and a former director
of the United Nations Population Division. This article is reprinted
with permission from YaleGlobal Online www.yaleglobal.yale.edu
Of the world’s 7.6 billion people, a record-breaking 1.4
billion, or 18 percent, 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.
proportion of grandparents in a population varies across countries,
depending on fertility rates and life expectancy, ranging from
lows of around 15 percent in countries such as in Ethiopia, Kenya,
Nigeria and Pakistan to highs in excess of 25 percent in Costa
Rica, Japan, Russia and Ukraine. National statistics on grandparents,
increasingly relevant for the development of family policies and
programs, are unfortunately limited to a handful of developed
countries. Consequently, the numbers and proportions of grandparents
presented in this study are indirect estimates calculated by the
author based on available demographic parameters for each country.
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, Indonesia,
Pakistan, South Africa and Turkey, the proportion of childless
women in their late forties is relatively low, typically below
5 percent. By contrast, in most developed countries, the proportion
of childless women in their late forties is above 10 percent.
In Austria, Canada, Finland, Spain, the United Kingdom and the
United States, close to 20 percent of women reaching age 50 are
first childbirth of one’s offspring largely determines the
age when people become grandparents. In some developed countries,
such as Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands and Switzerland,
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. In many developing countries
such as Bangladesh, Chad, Mali, Niger and Zambia, the average
age of women at the birth of the first child is below 20 years.
Accordingly, the average age of grandmothers would be roughly
double that age or slightly less than 40 years.
level of fertility also produces age structures that help determine
the relative proportion of grandparents within a given population.
In high fertility countries, such as Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria,
less than 10 percent of the population is above the age of 50
years. In low fertility countries, such as Germany, Italy and
Japan, more than 40 percent of the population is aged 50 years
major demographic parameter contributing to higher levels and
lengthier periods of grandparenthood is longevity, considered
among the modern era’s greatest achievements. Notable gains
achieved in health and lifespans provide women and men with more
years to enjoy sustained relationships with grandchildren as they
grow into adulthood. For example, at the start of the 20th century
when life expectancy at birth in the United States was 47 years,
about 20 percent of 30-year-olds had any living grandparent. By
the close of that century, when life expectancy had increased
to 77 years, about 80 percent of 30-year-olds had a living grandparent.
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 percent 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. Based on projected increases in longevity, one study
estimated that by the year 2030, more than 70 percent of 8-year
olds in the United States are likely to have a living great-grandparent.
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.
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.
financial savings can be considerable. In the United Kingdom,
for example, grandparents save parents more than $70 billion annually
in childcare costs. In Australia, grandparents save working parents
more than $2 billion annually in childcare costs. Such care is
particularly critical for mothers with young children, especially
single mothers, enabling them to enter and remain in the formal
labor market. Without such support, many mothers could not participate
in the labor market or pursue career goals.
studies show that grandmothers are more likely than grandfathers
to provide childcare assistance and more time. For many developed
countries, no less than 40 percent of grandmothers provide some
childcare to their grandchildren. In the United States, the United
Kingdom and Romania, the large majority of grandmothers provide
providing childcare assistance, 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, child
neglect, migration and death, custodial grandparenting is a global
phenomenon. In the United States, for example, about 2 percent
of children are raised by grandparents with no parent living in
the home. In many developing countries including China, Mexico,
Moldova, Nigeria, the Philippines and Vietnam, parents who migrate
for employment or resettlement to urban areas or abroad often
leave children with grandparents and send remittances back home
to support them.
recently, the Great Recession and housing crises brought many
generations together. In the United States, for example, the number
of grandparents living with their grandchildren is up sharply,
having increased by about a third over the past generation. After
a long post-war decline in households with multiple generations
of family members living together, the proportion of multi-generational
households in wealthy nations is once again increasing. This increase
has been attributed to the economic conditions and growing numbers
of foreign-born groups accustomed to living with extended families.
to assisting children and grandchildren, many grandparents need
care 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 percent 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.
widely recognize grandparents’ essential roles in modern
family life by officially celebrating Grandparents Day in Australia,
Canada, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Pakistan, Poland,
Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States 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.
© YaleGlobal Online www.yaleglobal.yale.edu
by Joseph Chamie