Not retiring: the role of grandparents

Grandparents are often on the frontline of the childcare debate,  as Covid showed, but don’t get much support.

Grandparents caring responsibilities

Grandparents caring for grandchildren under 12 may qualify for Class 3 National Insurance credits

Grandparents don’t often get a lot of press attention, even though so many parents rely on them for childcare. A report out this week, however, a survey was published on kinship carers, who include grandparents, and the difficulties they face in accessing flexible working and leave.

The survey by the Kinship charity found over two-thirds of kinship carers say their employers did not offer paid leave or flexible working hours when they became carers, forcing many to leave the workforce altogether. Sixty eight per cent of kinship carers said their employers did not offer this kind of support when they took on the care of a child. More than four in 10 also said that they had to stop working altogether, while 45% had to reduce their working hours.

Kinship carers are not just grandparents; they can be anyone who steps in to raise a child when their parents are unable to do so. But most are grandparents.

Grandparents already do a lot of childcare whether or not they are kinship carers. Many are working and the number of working grandparents is likely to rise as people have to work longer and childcare costs continue to rise. The Government has said it will subsidise childcare more, but the problem is that it doesn’t look as if the money will cover the full cost of places, meaning more nurseries could go under which would result in fewer formal childcare places and more demand for informal carers such as grandparents.

Employers like Saga offer grandparent leave and there was a proposal a few years ago to enable parents to share their parental leave with grandparents. This was discarded as it was argued that it would result in mothers sharing their parental leave with the mothers, undermining the aim of Shared Parental Leave – to get more dads to share the childcare with mums and to address the unequal playing field at work. Parental leave is not just about a child’s first year. It is important for people who are adopting and it has been vital for many parents over the course of the pandemic, even if it is unpaid, because it can be a cheaper or easier option than, for instance, finding holiday cover or dropping out of work altogether over the long summer holidays.

Flexible working legislation is accessible to all. However, employers can turn down a flexible working request on a number of vague grounds. The legislation is likely to change soon, enabling anyone to request flexible working from day one in a job. That is all very well, but it doesn’t address the essential weakness of the law: that employers can turn flexible working down if they are minded to.

The demographic changes of the last years, including the increasing presence of women in the workforce, have led to more reliance on extended families. That family network needs recognition. After all, one employer’s support for a grandparent employee could not only help that grandparent stay at work, but could stop another employer’s parent employee dropping out. We need to deal with the world that we are living in now, with all the family pressures people are facing, which means understanding the different needs of the workforce.

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