THE FACT OF THE MATTER
BY PAUL HOPKINS
The other day I overheard my grandchild Faye ask her mother: “Mama, why is butter yellow?” It seems like only yesterday that my daughter was her daughter’s age – three in January – but I cannot for the life of me remember her asking such an out-of-the-blue question. Most likely, she asked her mother.
I am blessed with four granddaughters; Faye and sister Abby (one in January) and Madeleine (5) and sister Mariele (2) who live in the US and
As a grandparent, I am part of a growing and changing brigade of humankind. According to the Max Planck Institute in Germany, grandparents have risen from 17 to 20 percent of the global population in the last 20 years. The institute predicts that by 2050, grandparents will account for 2.1bn. people on the planet – 22% of humanity – outnumbering those aged under 15.
People are living longer, with global life expectancy rising from 51 to 72 since 1960. Meanwhile family sizes are shrinking, with the ratio of living grandparents to children steadily rising.
I remember only two grandparents. My mother’s father was a retired army major who liked Power’s whiskey and could conjure up a sixpence from behind my ear. He lived to 86. My father’s mother I could take or leave, depending on childish whim. When I was born, the eldest of three, my father was working away from home and my mother was left with a baby in the middle of what was still a building site. One day, my grandmother came to visit. My mother was overjoyed to have another woman for company – she had lost her own mother when a child – and the good tea-set was taken out of the good cabinet.
When my grandmother was leaving my mother said: “Don’t ever wait to be invited. Drop in anytime.” And her mother-in-law said: “Listen here, I reared eight. I’m not about to rear a ninth!” And from that day, until she died 24 years later, she never darkened our door.
We grandparents of today don’t see ourselves as old fashioned, stodgy or irrelevant. In fact, at 71 I see my generation as adaptable and open to changing times. Recent research reveals that 68% of today’s grandparents consider themselves ‘cooler’ than their own grandparents. Certainly, Boomer and Gen X grandparents.
It’s not just medical understanding that has evolved between generations. Changing demographics and technology – the smartphone and such – has transformed how grandparents relate to and stay connected to their grandchildren. Yet, the fundamentals transcend time: most grandparents I know see themselves as a source of knowledge and guidance, and provide physical, emotional and, when needed, financial support.
The pandemic upended our world and virtual grandparenting became the norm as some grandparents went for a year or two without seeing their grandchildren. Out of necessity, my cohort has become increasingly adept at technology.
Across the world, other factors have come into play. According to the BBC, in China, urbanisation has created up to 60 million ‘left behind’ children, or about one fifth of all Chinese children, who are growing up in the countryside with grandparents while their parents live and work away, manning the factories and shops which are bringing about China’s economic rise. Similarly, in the Philippines, large numbers of children are living with grandparents while their parents work abroad.
Countries in the developed world have experienced an unprecedented growth in the number of their elderly and this trend is expected to continue for the next decades. The demographic ‘Grey Dawn:’ is often a cause for concern and framed as an ‘ageing crisis’. In Ireland, an ageing population – one in five is aged over 60 – poses huge challenges to social and health care – dementia is rising – and future social welfare provision. (And the new ‘brain drain’ will not help). However, increasing longevity does mean that more elderly are living longer and are healthier – thanks to lifestyle and medicine – and are available to help out. As they say, it takes a village to rear a child.
And wait ‘til the grandchildren are teenagers. These years can be tricky for parents to navigate. Fortunately, grandparents, spared the dramatics, can act as a conduit … of sorts. Hopefully. God willing.
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 I and my lot are just getting started!