Comment: Child care can’t be placed on backs of grandparents

They’re often willing, but because of their own jobs and needs, there less able to help with the task.

By Sarah Green Carmichael / Bloomberg Opinion

Grandparents don’t get a lot of air time in the conversation about America’s child-care crisis. Yet some 42 percent of parents rely on their own parents to help care for children, a figure that is eerily close to the 40 percent of families that say they don’t have the child care they need.

Nana is often the first call when the regular day-care plan falls through, according to a recent survey by Harris. Grandparents, especially grandmothers, are the invisible glue holding our creaking child-care infrastructure together. Without them, the cracks would be even more apparent.

Human societies have long been organized around prime-age adults bearing children and doing the bulk of the labor while elders help watch over the youngest generation. And multigenerational family support is a beautiful thing. But it would be far better if grandparents were able to provide this degree of help because they truly wanted to, not because life would fall apart without them.

And with people living longer, many of today’s grandparents are still working. “Everyone has this image of Grandma with an apron and a rolling pin,” says Madonna Harrington Meyer, a sociologist at Syracuse University. “But Grandma has a laptop and a job.”

About half of grandmothers are employed; some because they find work fulfilling, and many because they need the income. Many are also helping their adult children with expenses, including for the grandkids. That means grandmothers are juggling caregiving with paid work, just as their daughters are. And some are leaving the workforce earlier than they would like to because of those caregiving responsibilities. Although workforce participation among women aged 25-54 just hit a new high, women over 55 haven’t recovered from their pandemic-induced job losses.

There can be significant costs to exiting the paid workforce earlier than planned, especially for older women; who already suffer the steepest gender pay gaps and have less money saved for retirement. Women also receive about 80 percent of the Social Security benefits men receive. And once an older woman quits, it’s much harder for her to get back in than it would be for a younger woman or a man of her own age. Studies have found that ageism affects women more strongly than men, and it starts earlier.

Working grandparents would benefit from the same reforms as working parents: affordable, reliable, high-quality child care; universal pre-school; and paid parental leave. Because the U.S. has no paid leave, and because day care for babies is especially hard to find, half of families rely on grandparents to help after a new baby arrives.

“For a lot of families, grandparent care is the gold standard,” says Harrington Meyer, who notes that grandparents are often far more flexible than other childminders; they’ll watch your kid for free, for long or short periods of time, on little notice. They will even do it when your child is sick. Grandparents are especially essential when grandchildren have disabilities and need treatment or medication or need to be driven to an array of medical appointments; the existing day-care infrastructure isn’t set up to handle these sorts of needs.

Given such responsibilities, Social Security should be seen not only as a benefit for the elderly, but also as something that allows people in their 60s and 70s to contribute to caregiving if they choose to, says Stewart D. Friedman, a professor emeritus at the Wharton School.

Many grandparents see caring for grandchildren as a long-term investment in their families’ future. In her interviews with grandmothers, Harrington Meyer heard all sorts of reasons for providing regular care for their grandchildren: A grandmother may want to ensure her own daughter finishes college or can save for a down payment on a house. She might handle day-care pickup and drop-off to let her son or daughter work longer hours or take a job requiring more travel.

As much as grandparents want to help their families, the additional obligations can make it harder for them to take care of their own needs. While for most parents, the chaotic pre-school years are short, that phase may last longer for a grandparent who is backstopping multiple adult children. Because the average age a person becomes a grandmother is 50, she could be looking at 15 or more years of juggling caregiving and a paying job. As people live longer, some grandparents are also taking care of their own parents, too; Harrington Meyer calls them the “club sandwich generation.”

That all takes a lot of energy; something that Friedman, a hands-on grandad himself, assures me does dwindle with age. And not every grandparent is up for it.

No wonder covid seems to have encouraged some older workers to retire en masse, as my colleague Justin Fox has noted. Given the size of the baby boom cohort, boomers were always going to leave a hole when they exited the workforce. But the American economy, with food prices rising due to a lack of immigrant labor and lawmakers considering walking back child labor laws to help address worker shortages, isn’t in a place where we can push skilled, experienced, hardworking people out of the labor pool prematurely.

The same reforms that will help working parents will also help working grandparents; and the economy as a whole. Which is to say, everyone.

Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor. Previously, she was managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”

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