Grandparents can’t solve everything

Either state-subsidised childcare frees up grandparents to work, like in Scandinavia, or the elderly are intensely involved in childcare, like in southern Europe.

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It’s no exaggeration to say that the British economy rests on the shoulders of grandparents. More than 60 per cent of grandparents – mostly grandmothers – are helping out with childcare, and if they weren’t, parents wouldn’t be able to work.

The cost of childcare is eye-wateringly high. According to the Daycare Trust, the most expensive nursery costs more than the priciest public school; even if you’re paying around the national average, that’s £11,000 a year for one child. On the forums at Gransnet, grandparents are complaining. While they want to be involved in their grandchildren’s lives, they often resent the strong social pressure to put in a day or two of childcare a week so that their children can stay in jobs and build careers.

British grandparents are twice as likely to be in paid work than their counterparts in other European countries. There was yet another call this week (this time from the House of Lords) to raise the state pension age. We are constantly being told that we are going to have to work longer to afford old age.

A report out tomorrow from the charity Grandparents Plus points out that this situation is unsustainable. Grandparents can’t solve both the childcare problem and the pensions problem. Competent and resourceful they may be, but they are not capable of being in two places at once.

We face a stark choice – to become more like Southern Europe, where grandparents are intensively involved in childcare, or Scandinavia, where there is state-subsidised childcare and women expect to work. Grandparents do provide childcare in Sweden and Denmark, but on a more ad-hoc basis, not in the full-time way they do in Italy and Greece.

Half of us are not saving enough for retirement; 20 per cent aren’t saving anything at all. The idea that it will be possible for large numbers of grandmothers to drop out of the workforce in their fifties when they are still healthy, fit and competent, doesn’t make sense. Besides, continuing to work is known to be good for well-being.

That’s the Government’s line and it’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t acknowledge that larger numbers of 50-plus women at work are going to create a childcare gap. A lot of mothers (it’s usually mothers) will have no alternative but to leave work. Or grandparents will sacrifice their own financial security so their children can build theirs.

Older people are a great resource. The new extended middle age is a time of energy and possibility. But grandparents are not superhuman. They want to be involved in their grandchildren’s lives and to be useful; their shoulders are broad. Unfortunately, though, not broad enough to carry all the pensions and childcare deficits that the Government doesn’t want to face.

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