Speech by Dr Katherine Rake OBE, Delivered at the Michael Young Family and Kinship Memorial Lecture, Westminster, June 8, 2010


Grandfather and grandsonOur new Prime Minister, David Cameron, has said he wants Britain to be the most family friendly society in Europe. I'm sure all of us here today would be delighted for that vision to become a reality.

For those of you who are unaware, the Family and Parenting Institute is an independent charity working to champion families. We are working for a family friendly society which values families in all their diversity, and promotes conditions which enable them to thrive.

We believe that effective family policies can only be created when the whole family is considered, from the youngest to the oldest generations. Our focus here today is grandparenting. This country faces crucial questions regarding grandparents, regarding the 'intergenerational contract' between grandparents and their families, and regarding what kind of experience we want grandparenting to be in a future Britain.

The average age of becoming a grandparent in Britain is just 49. So my first question relates not to the minority of grandparents who are too frail to care for themselves, but to the robust majority. The question is this - how do we prevent healthy grandparents from being exploited as a childcare 'safety net' by their busy and burdened adult offspring?

Not only are grandparents fitter than previous generations, but their adult daughters are more likely to be in employment. These two factors combined mean grandparents are being laden more than ever with the job of caring for our young children.

The new generation of grandparent is taking the role of primary carer for large parts of the day or week. One in three families rely on grandparents for childcare, rising to one in two for single parents. This vast support system, ignored or assumed by the state, is a saving for the country's purse which has been valued at several billion pounds.

It's not just their young grandchildren that grandparents must increasingly work to support, but their adult children as well. This new generation of grandparent is more likely to find their adult children divorced, financially vulnerable and facing single parenthood.

In fact, newspapers reported in December 2009 that half a million adults between the ages of 35 and 44 were forced to move back in with their ageing parents, due to the interlinked issues of divorce and the economic downturn. When we ask how to ensure grandparents are not exploited, part of the answer is to help this generation below them. A family friendly future Britain would see young parents supported more - through measures such as greater childcare provision and more affordable housing - so that their grandparents are no longer the cheap childcare safety net.

Like their adult children, the new generation of grandparents are themselves more likely to be divorced and remarried. They must therefore meet the needs of a wider family that can include ex-spouses, former sons and daughters-in-law, and step-grandchildren. These non-traditional relationships are fluid, complex and potentially very challenging.

The second important question is this: Will the anticipated flexible working revolution unburden grandparents?

More and more of us are realising we won't be rich enough to retire at 60 after all. Cameron's new coalition government has promised to move towards extending the right to request flexible working to people of all ages. Grandparents, alongside the rest of Britain's working population, deserve full rights to work flexi-time.

But flexible working rights must be granted for the right reasons. It's not just about allowing grandparents to be at the beck and call of both employers and their needy families. Flexible hours should offer them work-life balance, not work-work balance.

This leads me on to a more fundamental question that Britain needs to confront: how do we keep the joy of grandparenting intact?

Only Britain's wealthier families have grandparents playing the joyful role we all dream of for our later years. It is predominately grandparents from Britain's working class families who have been encumbered with this double burden of continuing childcare and continuing work demands.

A Grandparents Plus report of June 2009 tells us that 'working class women are four times more likely to become a grandparent before their 50th birthday and more than twice as likely before their 60th birthday than middle class women.' So working class women are less likely to have reached the calm of retirement before grandmotherhood hits them. Also, their adult children are more likely to be single parents, needing extensive childcare support.

These working class women, who have attempted to juggle their family and their careers for decades, now find that grandmotherhood offers no relief. Working class men, who have always imagined grandfatherhood to be when family not career finally comes first, are discovering this is not to be.

We must ensure that the joy of grandparenting prevails.

A crucial component of this is to ensure we keep providing grandparents with choice. They will always want to contribute to the welfare of grandchildren - but they don't want it foisted on them by a state that either ignores or assumes their assistance. Today's grandparents are from a more individualistic generation. They are aware of their rights, and they will refuse to be overburdened with more responsibility than they deserve.

There is an unwritten contract between generations within British families. This contract dictates that grandparents support the young while they are healthy, and they are supported in return when they are frail. As Sam Smethers has told us, it is only when grandparents reach the age of 75 or over that they are more likely to receive than to give help. But it appears that this treaty is in danger of being torn up, not only because grandparents are giving too much, but because they are receiving too little in return when the time comes.

This brings me to the final crucial question - how do we solve the country's colossal elderly personal care crisis? Many of Britain's 14 million grandparents are threatened by the prospect of becoming their family's largest financial burden. This is due to the high costs of personal elderly care they may face in their last years. Their families are frightened too. In March this year, the Family and Parenting Institute commissioned a Populus poll asking people what the new government should prioritize to make Britain more family friendly. Families told us that elderly care costs were their single largest concern. How significant that grandparents, not young children, are now a British family's greatest worry.

A family friendly Britain will remain a distant dream until this elderly care question is answered. Cameron has pledged to examine various proposals. But progress cannot come soon enough.

These crucial questions on grandparenting demand intelligent answers.

Last updated: 9th June 2010 at 12:06:00