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Sarah Ronan explores the issues relating to grandparents and childcare at a time of pandemic and longer working lives and the impact on earnings of ongoing caring responsibilities.
The school holidays should serve as a welcome respite from a year of home schooling and burst bubbles, but instead they herald a different type of childcare challenge for families – an intergenerational one.
Rising infection rates and widespread self-isolation have led to reduced capacity on some holiday schemes, putting increasing pressure on grandparents to plug the gaps. “Kids are off school for 13 weeks of the year, while most parents get just five weeks’ holiday, so even with two parents, it just doesn’t add up,” explains Rachel Carrell, founder of
childcare provider Koru Kids. “This puts pressure on grandparents to provide childcare over the holidays so parents can keep working.”
Grandparents have long been the main provider of informal childcare. Prior to the pandemic, Age UK estimated that there were five million grandparents over the age of 50 providing regular childcare, with 40% looking after their grandchildren two to three times a week, saving working families thousands every year. But how does informal childcare impact those grandparents who still work? And are mums and dads asking too much?
Carrell says parents can feel guilty for imposing on grandparents, especially those still working; on the other hand, grandparents can feel like they are letting down their children if they don’t help. Adam Stachura, head of policy and communications at Age Scotland, says that reduced childcare provision over the last year has taken its toll on working grandparents, but many are keen to make up for the time spent apart during lockdown.
“Grandparents and grandchildren often have a special and close bond, and many are more than happy to step in and help with caring responsibilities,” comments Stachura. “But, at times, it can be really hard to push aside their own needs, aspirations or plans in order to fulfil this role or make up for the lack of available, affordable childcare.”
A recent survey of working mums by the TUC found that a fifth of those struggling with childcare this year don’t have access to their usual informal childcare networks, including grandparents.
Nikki Pound, policy and campaigns officer at the TUC, said that some parents are worried about the risk to grandparents while Covid infection rates are still high. This is a legitimate concern, of course, but quite often there are other effects of informal childcare that are overlooked. Aside from the cost of entertaining grandchildren during the holidays, there is also a potential loss of earnings and pension contributions.
“We know, particularly for women, not having the right infrastructure and policies in place to support childcare is a big driver of the gender pay gap and the gender pensions gap throughout their lives,” remarks Pound. “And if grandmothers are having to give up work or hours to support their families with childcare then this only adds to the problem. We also know with changes to the pension age for women, many grandmothers have taken a financial hit to their retirement pot and have had to work longer than expected. Reducing hours to help with care is not an option for many.”
For those working grandparents who do provide childcare alongside their jobs, more support is needed, argues Pound. Research by USDAW found that older workers struggled to have their caring commitments taken seriously, with 10% being refused time off by employers.
And it’s not just grandchildren who need caring for. Some older workers will be among the ‘sandwich generation’ who care for both grandchildren and their own elderly parents, further adding to the pressure.
Clare Plant, founder of People Happy HR consultancy, says that in addition to improved flexible working, employers need to have open conversations about care. “Acknowledging, listening and proactively acting on [these] issues is really important,” says Plant.
“Businesses should support employees by planning for reduced staff numbers [during school holidays], moving project deadlines outside of this timeframe if possible and not holding training events or team meetings throughout this period, so that parents and grandparents don’t miss out or feel like they can’t be away from the workplace if they need to be.”
Ultimately, the pressure on working grandparents is only going to be alleviated by the creation of more affordable formal childcare.
“Working families shouldn’t have to rely on grandparents to plug the gaps in childcare. Of course, we know many grandparents love to spend time with their grandchildren and want to help their children out,” comments Pound. “But there is a difference between that and having to rely on them because there are no other options.”