Sarah Wellard: Key role of grandparents holding families together

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ARE you a grandparent with grandchildren under 16? If so, then the chances are you are supporting your grandchildren and your adult children by helping out with childcare.

New research based on interviews with nearly 1,000 grandparents across Britain finds that grandparents play a pivotal role in supporting families, with almost two thirds of grandparents looking after their grandchildren, and one in five of grandmothers providing 10 hours a week or more of childcare.

Half of new mothers rely on grandparents to look after their babies when they go back to work after maternity leave. Shrinking family budgets, soaring childcare costs and cuts to childcare tax credits for many low income families are making formal childcare increasingly unaffordable for many families, and grandparents are stepping in to help.

But with the state pension age rising, increasing numbers of grandparents will be expected to stay in work until they reach 65 or older. And especially for the 45 per cent of grandmothers who are widowed, separated or divorced, many will have no option but to keep working.

Young grandmothers under the age of 50 are the most likely to provide childcare, but overall most childcare is being provided by grandmothers aged 55 to 65 who are retired or not working, the very group who will have to stay working for longer, followed by grandmothers aged 65 to 74. Grandfathers are also playing a key role in looking after grandchildren, often combining this with working.

Our ageing population means that grandparents are getting older, and growing numbers of grandparents – around 30 per cent – are in the sandwich generation with both grandchildren under 16 and their own elderly parents who are likely to be becoming frail and in need of care and support.

We believe that the increase in the state pension age will put huge pressure on older women in particular, who want to help out their adult children and elderly parents, but who will have no choice but to stay in the labour market.

A significant minority of grandparents are already combining work and care, often at considerable personal sacrifice. One 58-year-old widowed grandmother who went back to work after the death of her husband described how she works from 4am to midday five days a week stacking vending machines, and then picks up her grandson from school and looks after him for three hours until his parents get back from work. Another 74-year-old grandmother told us how she works every morning before looking after three grandchildren in the afternoon.

But not all grandparents will be able to juggle work and childcare. And not everyone will want to spend their retirement looking after their grandchildren. We think one of the consequences of the increase in the state retirement age will be a growing “care gap”, with mothers leaving the labour market because they cannot afford childcare and because grandparents are no longer available to help out. Take London, for example, which has the lowest rate of grandparent childcare in Britain because fewer families have extended family nearby, and the most expensive childcare.

Another consequence of the pension changes is likely to be increasing numbers of older women leaving work early to care who are at risk of falling into poverty themselves.

It is already the case that grandmothers are much more likely than grandfathers to be dependent on the state pension as their main source of income – and there are many more women pensioners living in poverty than men. To help grandparents who wish to combine work with childcare, Grandparents Plus wants to see the right to request flexible working extended to all, as the best way of achieving the necessary culture change.

We also want to see parents able to transfer unused parental leave toa grandparent – in Denmark, it is already the norm for the mother to take the first day off work if a child is ill, the father to the second, and a grandparent to take the third. It’s a good way of spreading unavoidable costs of caring across employees and employers. We also want to see more government investment in both formal childcare, and social care for vulnerable older people, so that informal care provided by the extended family is an option not a necessity. Especially in these straightened times, the Government needs to see investment in social infrastructure as equally important to our economic health as capital investment.

Fundamentally, we want a rethink from government of the huge economic contribution which grandparents provide in looking after grandchildren, worth at least £4bn a year.

At the moment the vast majority of grandparents who help out with childcare say they do it for love and that they love doing it – but that could change if grandparents end up doing more than they would wish, and parents have nowhere else to turn.