The Global role of Grandmothers in the Care Economy

February 1, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

In recent years, Oxfam’s been doing some pioneering work on the ‘care economy’, aka the bit Adam Smith left out (example here and here). My uninformed mental image of this had been all about the role of parents, generally mothers, in running the household and bringing up the kids, so I was struck by a recent Economist piece on the global role of grandmothers – some excerpts.

‘Two big demographic trends are making nana and gramps more important. First, people are living longer. Global life expectancy has risen from 51 to 72 since 1960. Second, families are shrinking. Over the same period, the number of babies a woman can expect to have in her lifetime has fallen by half, from 5 to 2.4. That means the ratio of living grandparents to children is steadily rising.

Surprisingly little research has been done into this. We found that there are 1.5bn grandparents in the world, up from 0.5bn in 1960 (though the further back one goes, the fuzzier the estimates become). By 2050 we project that there will be 2.1bn grandparents (making up 22% of humanity), and slightly more grandparents than under-15s.

That will have profound consequences. The evidence suggests children do better with grandparental help—which usually, in practice, means from grandmothers. And it will help drive another unfinished social revolution—the movement of women into paid work.

Since fertility rates and life expectancy vary enormously from country to country, the age of the grandparent has not yet dawned everywhere (see chart 1). They are 29% of Bulgarians but only 10% of Burundians. Their average age varies widely, too, from 53 in Uganda to 72 in Japan (see chart 2). To understand what a difference plentiful grandparents make, a good place to start is in a country where they are still scarce. Consider Senegal. Most rural Senegalese are subsistence farmers. Although fertility has dropped from 7.3 babies per woman in 1980 to 4.5 today, large families remain the norm. Children under 15 outnumber living grandparents by 3.5 to 1.

Amy Diallo, an 84-year-old matriarch wrapped in a blue and white hijab, has to think carefully when asked how many she has. “Thirty,” she concludes, looking up from her cross-legged position on the floor of her home in Tally Boubess, outside Dakar, the capital, on a street where horses and carts jostle with sheep and cars.

As the oldest member of her family, she commands respect. She offers moral guidance to the young: be honest and pious, uphold tradition and stop hitting your younger brother. Every year she leads a family pilgrimage to Tivaouane, a Muslim holy city, with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and various in-laws, perhaps a hundred in all.

Grandparents pass on traditional beliefs, stories, songs and a sense of history. More prosaically, they bring an extra pair of hands. That helps both parents and children. A study in rural Gambia, for example, found that the presence of a maternal grandmother significantly increased a child’s chance of living to the age of two. In sub-Saharan Africa the odds of being in school are about 15% higher for children living with a grandfather and 38% higher for children who live with a grandmother.

As for Mrs Diallo, she has never worked outside the home. But she has helped some of her offspring to do so. Ndeye, one of her daughters, got a job in an office despite having eight kids herself, because Mrs Diallo helped out with the children.

Yet for all her sense of love and duty, Mrs Diallo cannot babysit all 30 grandkids. The state offers little help. Unlike Ndeye, many of Mrs Diallo’s daughters and granddaughters have never worked outside the home. This is common: barely a third of working-age women in Senegal are either in work or seeking it. Grandparents in the poorest countries do their best, but there are not enough of them.

In richer places, fertility has fallen much further than in Africa. A typical Mexican woman, for example, can expect to have only two children, down from nearly seven in 1960. Mexico’s ratio of living grandparents to children is three times higher than Senegal’s. Mexican abuelas thus have more time to lavish on each grandchild.

Irma Aguilar Verduzco lives with her daughter, also called Irma, and two grandchildren, Rodrigo and Fernanda. She cooks, does school runs and reads with her grandchildren. Ever since he was three, Rodrigo, now 16, has liked to take a cup of coffee and sit down for a chat with his grandmother. Fernanda, now 12, still likes to get into bed with her. Irma junior, meanwhile, has long worked 12-hour days, currently as a manager at the Maya Train, a big rail project. She is divorced, and says her ex-husband “does not help”. She “could not have done anything” without Irma senior’s help.

Grandmothers are the main source of non-parental child care for young children in Mexico, especially since covid-19 forced many nurseries to close. They watch over nearly 40% of sprogs under six. Before grandma moved in, Irma was struggling. “There is no understanding or flexibility for working mothers in Mexico,” she complains. Her kids were often home alone. “Sometimes I paid people to look after them but it was hard to afford and hard to trust people.” One day, years ago, Rodrigo came home from nursery with a broken bone; Irma suspects mistreatment. With her mother around, she feels relaxed.

Miguel Talamas of the Inter-American Development Bank and his colleagues have tried to estimate how much Mexican grandmothers help their daughters get paid work. They looked at what happened to families after grandmothers die. An abuela’s death reduced by 27%, or 12 percentage points, the chance that her daughter was in the labour force, and reduced her earnings by 53%. (The same study found no effect on the employment rate of fathers.)

Living with grandparents is not always easy. They may have outdated ideas or demand too much deference. In India, where couples traditionally live with the husband’s parents, a genre of television drama turns on the fraught relations between wives and mothers-in-law. A study of rural Indian women in 2018 found that those who lived with their mummyji (mother-in-law) had little freedom. Only 12% were allowed to visit friends or relatives alone.

In rural China, grandparents help reduce the harm caused by the government. Under the apartheid-like hukou (household registration) system, rural Chinese who move to cities are treated as second-class citizens. Their children are barred from local public schools, so they are often left behind with their grandparents in their parents’ home village. But rural schools are often dire. Grandparents, though well-meaning, are often barely literate. Scott Rozelle of Stanford University finds that more than half of toddlers in rural China are cognitively delayed, partly because their grandparents do not realise that it is important to talk to them.

In Chinese cities the story is different. The one-child policy (which became a three-child policy in 2021) was always enforced more strictly in cities than the countryside. So many urban families consist of four grandparents, two parents and just one child. Thus, there is no shortage of caring hands. Urban children often live with grandparents during the week and see their hard-working parents on weekends.

Nurseries are pricey and distrusted in China. Grandmothers often retire in their 50s to watch over the precious only grandchild. This works well enough. The labour-force participation rate for Chinese women is, at 62%, slightly higher than America’s. “If you want to give your child a good education, you have to work hard to earn a lot of money,” says Zhou Bao, an architect and mother in a “4-2-1” family who has used both sets of grandparents for child-care. But “in the process of making money, you can lose the time spent with your child.” And she expresses a common fear that grandparents tend to spoil their only grandchildren.

Overall, looking after kids appears to be good for grandparents. Those who spend time with their grandchildren report lower levels of depression and loneliness. But one can have too much of a good thing. Youngsters can be exhausting, frustrating and objectionable. A study in Singapore, with mainly ethnically Chinese families, found that many looked after their grandchildren more out of duty than because they relished it. Many find it harder as they age. Some are squeezed in the “grandsandwich generation”—relied upon to help both their grandchildren and their own ailing parents. Some hanker for a more relaxing retirement.’

Fascinating. I imagine that the policy prescriptions for supporting this part of care economy are a bit different than those for parents. Anyone seen anything I can link to?

Update: Thanks Rozanne Chorlton for sending through the link to the Grandmother Project. More please!

February 1, 2023
Duncan Green