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Guest blog: Should grandparents be expected to plug the childcare gap?

Grandmother and babyGrandparents Plus have published a report arguing that as large numbers of women over  50 stay in work, childcare could become unaffordable for a great deal of families who rely on the help of grandparents. In this post, Gransnet Editor Geraldine Bedell asks how we can combat the “looming care gap crisis” that threatens to put strain on parents and grandparents alike. 

Read her post and let us know what you think in the Talk thread



Does your childcare involve grandparents? For many families, roping in the older generation is the only way parents can work. Nursery costs are scarily high - £11,000 on average for a single child. And besides being cheap, grandparents have the advantage of being in love with your children, always a plus in a carer.

When I had my first child, a generation ago, almost no one expected their parents to provide the route back to work. Now there is a widespread assumption that grandmothers in particular will help out, making the nursery care affordable, plugging the gaps.

A report out today from Grandparents Plus and King’s College London makes the point that the 63% of British grandparents who are doing all this childcare tend to be younger, fit, and well-educated: precisely the people the government wants to keep in the workforce.

We are constantly being told that we are all going to have to work longer because the country can’t afford 30 to 40 years of retirement. (It also turns out that too much retirement isn’t terribly good for wellbeing). This week, the House of Lords again made the point that the retirement age needs to rise further.

Grandparents Plus’s report on what it calls the looming care gap crisis argues that if large numbers of women aged over 50 stay in work, childcare at current prices will become unaffordable for a large number of families. The result is almost certain to be more mothers leaving work or working part-time even if they don’t want to.

"The pressures on people to carry on working into later life are immense; what is less often noticed is the devastating effect this could have on the career prospects of young mothers."

What we need, Grandparents Plus says, is affordable, state-subsidised childcare. What we also need, I think, is a less sexist and ageist approach to work, flexible about the life course, accepting that there are periods when people will want to work hard and other times when caring responsibilities will require more balance.

In Scandinavia, where state-subsidised childcare does exist, grandparents are still very involved in their grandchildren’s lives – but on an ad hoc basis, rather than the intensive full-time care typically provided by grandmothers in Italy or Greece.

We need to choose whether we want to be Scandinavian or Greek. The trouble with the Greek model is that not only do older women not work; there is no great expectation that younger women will either. It tends to be the case that a less ageist attitude to jobs goes with a less sexist one.

The pressures on people to carry on working into later life are immense; what is less often noticed is the devastating effect this could have on the career prospects of young mothers. Some grandparents are, admittedly, sacrificing their own financial security in old age to help their children keep working. But that’s not sustainable, either inside families (someone is going to have to pay the heating bills in old age) or for the country as a whole, already struggling to fund pensions.

Is there any alternative to properly-subsidised, universally-available childcare (along, of course, with flexibility for parents and grandparents to manage their caring responsibilities)? And is what you want now the same as what you will want in your 50s? I happen to think the interests of younger and older women are pretty well aligned here: we all need to be able to choose to work without thinking that we are disadvantaging other members of our family.

Last updated: 16-Apr-2013 at 12:11 PM