Living in the Age of Grandmas

 “It takes a village to raise a child,” is the African proverb that today seems more aspirational than experiential. The pace of life, the ease and frequency of relocation have many of us actually searching for the village, the community that knows and supports our family. Recent research from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany makes the argument that if it is not a village raising the child, it at least takes a grandma!

It started when the British news company The Economist tried to track the demographic shift in population and age. It noted that people live two decades longer, on average, today than they did in the 1960s, and women bear half as many children. What this means is that there are a lot more grandparents, and a lot fewer grandchildren. The Economist found precious little data investigating this trend. So the publication asked Diego Alburez-Gutiérrez of the Institute to produce some estimates by looking at U.N. age and population data with models of kinship structures in various countries. The results were a bit startling.

Crunching the Numbers

The study found that the number of grandparents in the world today has tripled since 1960, currently sitting at around 1.5 billion. Overall, as a share of the population, grandparents comprise 20 percent of the world’s population, up from 17 percent. But the largest stunner was the ratio of grandparents to children under 15, which has jumped from .46 in 1960 to .8 today.

Using data from the study, The Economist estimates that by 2050, there will be 2.1 billion grandparents making up 22 percent of humanity, and slightly more grandparents than under-15s in the world! This matters because grandparents most often are the ones to pass on knowledge and traditions, and maintain a family’s link to their past. And in terms of the modern world, grandparents — especially grandmothers — help raise their grandchildren, freeing up mothers to work outside the home. (Grandfathers are involved, too, though usually in activity-based ways; it’s the grandmothers who help raise the children.)

So What Does it Mean?

So Grandma is a free babysitter. So what? The what is this: numerous studies have found that mothers with what researchers call “granny-nannies” earn more than they otherwise would — a statistic important in rich and poor countries alike. An example of this from the study looked at working mothers in Mexico. Those who lost a grandmother saw their earnings fall by a half.

However, especially in the United States, what being a “granny-nanny” often means is that a grandmother might give up her career to help her children raise her grandchildren. It’s a trade-off — the mothers, or both parents in a two-parent household, can then work, but Grandma gives up her career. Often, that’s a choice a grandparent wants to make. But it also means that what society gains by having the parents in the workforce is offset to some extent by the departure of grandmothers from the workforce.

Appreciation, Celebration and Belonging: What’s Old is New Again!

The Economist advocates a simple approach to helping both nuclear families and grandparents: give cash to parents with young children. Give money to the grandparents who are caregivers, too. And make all the money spent on child care tax deductible, so that it doesn’t matter whether a young family hires a childcare company or asks Grandma and Grandpa to help care for the children. 

The pandemic put a spotlight on the issue of child care, both the need and the cost for parents. As we define the “new normal” in living with the rolling threat of contagious diseases and remote work schedules, more deliberate planning for grandparents’ inclusion in family homes and neighborhoods should be done. Rather than a response to a crisis or a piecemeal temporary arrangement, let’s look more seriously at zoning changes that encourage auxiliary units (tiny houses and ADUs) in backyards and single family neighborhoods. It is also the time to champion multi-generational housing opportunities for downsizing grandparents. Remember the numbers … more grandparents than kids!

Third Chapter Living celebrates, challenges, informs and promotes conversations about housing issues affecting the Baby Boomer Generation. Check out our website to learn more about our work. Our Facebook Group is a resource center with tips and recommendations on navigating those issues. Share experiences with others who are looking for Housing Downsizing Tools that allow them to successfully age-in-place.

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