Multigenerational Living: Has the “Age of the Grandparent” Arrived?


The combination of longevity and lower birth rate means the ratio of grandparents to grandchildren is steadily climbing. Photo: Oliver Rossi/Getty Images

Longevity may be the most important trend we’ve ever experienced. It’s driven by — and in turn, it affects — everything from health to housing, money to technology, lifestyle to social policy. There’s so much to be aware of — and it’s just getting started! Now you can keep up with all the latest developments in this weekly column.


The Economist has produced a fascinating study of grandparents, reported here. “The age of the grandparent has arrived,” The Economist proclaims, and the reason is plain: “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.”

In fact, there are 1.5 billion grandparents in the world — three times the number there were in 1960. “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, the number of grandparents is projected to increase to 2.1 billion, or 22 per cent of the world’s population. That’s right — almost one in four people will be a grandparent.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? What does it mean — for the grandkids, the grandparents or society as a whole?

As the article rightly points out, the topic has not exactly been well researched. So kudos to The Economist for identifying at least a few data points that are certainly worthy of further study:

  • The presence of a grandparent appears to have an important influence on women in the labour force. Where a grandparent (almost always a grandmother) is present to take care of the grandkids (full or part time), the daughter or daughter-in-law is much more likely to be employed. In Mexico, the death of the grandmother reduced by more than 25 per cent the chances that her daughter was in the labour force (no similar impact on males). And a study of American census data showed that living within 40 kilometres of a grandmother raised the labour force participation rate of married women with small children by as much as 10 percentage points
  • Not surprisingly, perhaps, a high percentage of grandparents see their grandchildren often and take an active role in their lives. In the U.S., according to one survey, 50 per cent of very young children, 35 per cent of primary school-age children and 20 per cent of teens spend time with their grandparents in a typical week
  • Is the influence good? Overall, yes — although studies from the U.S., Britain, China and Japan suggest that children who spend more time around grandparents are more likely to be obese. Spoiling? Something else? The data isn’t clear. What is clear is that children parented solely or mostly by grandparents are worse off than peers. But it may be a matter of underlying circumstances that gave rise to grandparent-parenting in the first place: “In America, where roughly 2% of children are raised primarily by a grandparent, Laura Pittman of Northern Illinois University found more emotional and behavioural problems among such adolescents than their peers. That is perhaps not surprising. If children are not living with their parents, it is often because something has gone badly wrong: a father in jail; a mother dead or incapable. In these circumstances, living with a grandparent is usually far better than the alternatives”
  • Grandparenting is definitely good for the grandparents themselves. “Those who spend time with their grandchildren report lower levels of depression and loneliness.” That said, there are definitely challenges: “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”

If we really are headed for a world in which almost one out of every four people is a grandparent, you can expect to see this topic begin to attract a lot more study, data and analysis. The sheer number of grandparents will soon demand (if it doesn’t already) the creation of sub-categories and segments, divided not only by age and income but by generational identity and life circumstances. What does a baby boomer grandparent bring to the party that a silent generation grandparent didn’t? Some gen-Xers are already grandparents — what are they doing differently? How does longevity affect attitudes and, thereby, activity and performance? A 70-year-old “grandma” of 1980 may have had only a 10 to 12 year expectation for the rest of her life; what happens when it becomes, as it is today, a 20- or 30-year expectation? And what happens when grandparent-hood doesn’t kick in until much later? Or, when the grandparent doesn’t see himself or herself as a “retiree”?

Lots to look at … and I promise, we will!

David Cravit is a Vice-President at ZoomerMedia, and Chief Membership Officer of CARP. He is also the author of two books on the “reinvention” of aging. You can check out some of his other writing here.



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