It is taken for granted that grandparents care for their grandchildren – so much so that their presence at the school gates every afternoon is hardly noticed. Yet our new research shows that grandparents are the first named source of after-school and weekend childcare for about a third of families who have a child starting primary school.
Our analysis also shows just how important childcare by grandparents has been in enabling an increase in mothers’ participation in the labour market in recent decades.
We analysed data on 14,951 children and their families from the Millennium Cohort Study, which has been following a group of children born in the UK between 2000-01. We looked at families with at least one child who was in the first year of primary school, some of whom also had younger and older siblings.
It is still overwhelmingly mothers who change their work patterns when children enter the scene. For those women who are back at work and have at least one child in the first year of primary school, we found that 32% of those with a partner and 36% of lone mothers named grandparents as the main source of after-school and weekend care for their children while they are working.
One of the hidden aspects of grandparents’ involvement in childcare is that it has actually helped more mothers to enter paid work in recent decades. Between 1996 and 2017, the overall employment rate of mothers of children of all ages in England increased by 11.8 percentage points to 73.7%.
Our statistical modelling showed that grandparent childcare raised mothers’ of four and five-year-olds participation in the labour market by 26%, compared to if grandparents had not provided childcare. Some mothers who used grandparent care would have gone to work anyway but others only went back to work because they were able to rely on grandparents, either for cost reasons or because they preferred leaving their child with their relative.
Help all round
We found that grandparents help mothers with all levels of qualifications get back to work. They help mothers with degree-level qualifications, who are the most likely to be in paid work after having children. But they can also make all the difference for mothers with a lower level of qualifications or without any qualifications, for whom getting stable work and childcare is the most challenging.
Our research also found that a surprisingly high proportion of children lived very close to their grandparents: around 40% of four and five-year-old children live less than 15 minutes away from their maternal grandparents although they tended to live further away from paternal grandparents. Other studies have also found that a high proportion of grandchildren meet their grandparents on a weekly or daily basis.
There is little evidence about why grandparents are providing care, and whether it’s because parents prefer grandparent care. Some research seems to suggest that when formal childcare is available and funded then parents seem to take it but when there is a shortage of childcare, grandparents tends to fill the void.
In the US, research has shown that an increase in lone mothers’ income led to a decrease in grandparents’ care as the mother paid for formal childcare. Yet from the grandparents’ perspective, we still don’t know much about the choices grandparents make about whether to care for their grandchildren or to participate in paid work or whether to combine both.
These questions are at the centre of dramatic changes to the labour market, both in the number of mothers going back to work, and in the requirement that older workers should extend their paid working lives to support themselves until they reach the recently increased pension age. All this means a lot more pressure on both grandparents’ time, and their finances.
Shireen Kanji does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.