- A recent study from Israel not only challenges the notion of grandparents as dependents, but it also challenges us to think creatively about how public policy can support private care. Tweet This
- If sharing the load allows couples to have more children, how surprising is it that sharing the load across the extended family could also lead to more children? Tweet This
- We suspect that the more interdependent familistic ethos cannot be easily created by public policy. Tweet This
Barbara Okun and Guy Stecklov's research published in Demography challenges the notion of a sandwich generation stressed by raising their own children while caring for their aging parents. To be sure, caring for older and younger generations simultaneously can cause great strain—even producing physical health consequences among individuals doing so—but does an entire generation experience that double drain?
Not in Israel: grandparents, on average, seem to support child care. Okun and Stecklov showed that Israeli couples were less likely to have another child following grandparental death. If grandparents required more support than they give, we would expect the opposite: couples freed from elderly care should be more likely to have another child (or at least equally likely—not significantly less likely). The notion that grandparents contribute to childrearing is consistent with Okun's earlier work showing that adult children who receive financial assistance or assistance with child care from their parents have higher ideal family sizes. It follows that if grandparental help encourages parents to want more children, losing that help could dissuade them from following through.
The notion of grandparents as dependents is further challenged by the fact that in Israel, 32% of economically-inactive grandparents are involved in caring for their grandchild, compared to 52% of grandparents who are still in the labor force. This attests to challenges with work-family balance extending far beyond one's own childbearing years, but it further attests to the multiple contributions that the older generation can make to their children's lives. Physical capacity may co-determine both labor force participation and grandchild care: many are capable of both, but many may be capable of neither. Given this mixed bag, it is all the more striking that the loss of a grandparent in Israel seems to reduce child care capacity in the aggregate.
Okun and Stecklov suggest that states seeking to bolster fertility should think beyond market and public sector alternatives to parental caregiving; public policy could also facilitate the role of grandparents. Examples would be policies like allowing working grandparents to use paid sick leave to care for grandchildren, or grandparental leave following the birth of a grandchild.
Thus, this study not only challenges the notion of grandparents as dependents, but it also challenges us to think creatively about how public policy can support private care. Policies like a father's quota in parental leave policy (a portion of paid parental leave that cannot be transferred to the mother, and is therefore forfeited if the father does not take it) encourage couples to adopt a more gender egalitarian division of child care that helps working parents have another child. In other words, public policy is already shaping private care in ways that support childbearing.
If sharing the load between partners allows couples to have more children, how surprising is it that sharing the load across the extended family could also lead to more children?
Lessons from Israel, however, may not apply to other societies easily. First, there is geography. Okun and Stecklov point out that 71% of families in Israel report receiving grandparental assistance in caring for their children. The only European country that comes close to this mark is the Netherlands—another geographically small and densely populated country. Proportions in the rest of Europe range from 30-60 percent.
The authors comment:
it may be that in many low-fertility countries that are struggling to increase levels of childbearing, practices such as suburbanization have contributed to distancing adult children from their parents, reducing the potential for grandparental involvement. One positive step might be city planning in new communities that ensures the availability of more diverse housing, thereby allowing families to remain proximate and supportive over time.
This means that family policy to support grandparental care might have to include innovations in housing policy—a much heavier lift than offering leave after the birth of a grandchild.
Second, Israel is a relatively familistic society. Generations do not live close to each other only because the country is small; family interdependence in Israel is more deeply rooted. This is an issue we have both thought about a lot when writing this article. Both of us come from stable, loving families. However, Anna's is much more interdependent than Laurie's: Anna's parents have housed each of her four grandparents at different, but consecutive, points over the past 15 years. The importance of any related hardships was not really part of the residential decision-making processes because "family first" trumped those kinds of concerns. In Laurie's family, "family first" meant that her octogenarian parents turned down the "loan" of her daughter for the 8th grade school year because they deemed it too great a sacrifice for Laurie and her husband to make. In this case, the good of the nuclear family was valued over the good of the extended family. We suspect that Israeli families are more like Anna's in not distinguishing so much between the two. We also suspect that the more interdependent familistic ethos cannot be easily created by public policy.
Okun and Stecklov seem to have pondered the same, as they also comment that the importance of grandparents may not be particularly salient in whole societies, but in population subgroups, such as "newly arrived immigrant groups, ethnic minorities, or less geographically mobile parts of the population." Among such groups, "the role of intergenerational demographic ties should not be ignored as an important factor in understanding fertility change." Women in more developed countries average only 1.5 children apiece, and the subgroups where grandparents are most likely to support fertility are only a small share of the population in the Global North. Nonetheless, we should support creative uses of public policy to make families stronger by making grandparent care more accessible.
Laurie DeRose is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, and Director of Research for the World Family Map Project. Anna Barren is a graduate of the Philosophy program at Christendom College and is the administrator of the Sociology department at the Catholic University of America.