The contribution of unpaid work, often performed by women, is and has been largely unrecognised, a situation feminist scholars have long drawn to our attention. Maternal and paternal grandfathers and grandmothers are involved in childcare but around the world maternal grandmothers provide care most often (Sear and Coall, 2011) as this study bears out is the case in the UK. In the UK grandparents are having a large causal effect on mothers’ participation in paid work. The reason for focusing on mothers’ paid work is that it is still overwhelmingly mothers who change their work patterns when children enter the scene. This study of the UK is based on analysis of 14,951 children and their families from the Millennium Cohort Study, which has been following a nationally representative sample of children born in the Millennium.

The study shows grandparent provided care is extensive in the UK. Overall, 32% of partnered mothers and 36% of lone mothers named grandparents as the main source of after-school and weekend care for their school-entry age children (aged 4-5 years). The study also found that in the UK many grandparents live close to their grandchildren, with around 40% of mothers located within 15 minutes of their parents with proximity to maternal grandparents being more pronounced than proximity to paternal grandparents (consistent with Chan and Ermisch, 2015). Grandparent care has had a major impact on the workforce having caused mothers’ participation to increase by 12 percentage points, which translates into grandparents raising mothers’ participation by 26% when at least one child reaches school age. Yet grandparents are not a limitless resource. Little attention has focused on the pressure grandparents themselves face to extend their paid working lives as a result of recent changes to the state pension age, a situation Gray (2005) was anticipating in her article in the Journal of Social Policy more than a decade ago.

The study shows that mothers from all levels of education benefit from the care grandparents provide. Grandparent care raised participation of mothers with degree level qualifications by 20%, which makes a big difference because these mothers are more likely to be able to get work and much more likely to be in work.  It also made a substantial difference to mothers without qualifications who were less likely to be able to get a job, raising their lower participation by about 40%, while for women with lower-level qualifications (NVQ1) it raised their participation by 25%. For women without formal qualifications grandparent care can make all the difference in terms of whether or not mothers work. There is insufficient recent evidence about whether grandparents provide care because parents prefer grandparent care or because there are insufficient alternatives. The evidence we do have seems to suggest that when formal care in nurseries, schools and childcare centres is available and funded then parents seem to take it but when there is a shortage of childcare grandparent care tends to fill the void (Attias-Donfut and Wolff, 2000). 

Childcare costs in the UK are high in international comparison (Viitanen, 2005). From the grandparents’ perspective, we do not know enough about the choices grandparents make about whether to care for their grandchildren or to participate in paid work or to follow some other path. Evidence does seem to suggest that when childcare costs are lowered or childcare is provided by the state the provision of informal care declines (Brewer et al, 2016 for the UK and Ho, 2015 for the USA) so parents and grandparents do not seem to be averse to formal childcare. It is hard to continue to ignore these questions about grandparents’ care and paid work when they are at the centre of dramatic changes to the labour market, both in mothers’ participation and in the requirement that older workers should extend their paid working lives to support themselves until they reach the newly increased pension age. It is clear that in the UK at the current time parents rely heavily on grandparents and the degree of intergenerational solidarity is surprisingly high in what many regard as a liberal market economy.

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Attias-Donfut, C., and Wolff, F.-C. (2000) ‘Complementarity between private and public transfers’ in S. Arber and C. Attias-Donfut (eds), The Myth of Generational Conflict: The Family and State in Ageing Societies. (pp. 47-68.). London: Routledge.

Brewer, M, Cattan, S, Crawford, C and Rabe,  (2016) ‘The impact of free, universal pre-school education on maternal labour supply.’ IFS, London.

Gray, A. (2005) ‘The changing availability of grandparents as carers and its implications for childcare policy in the UK’, Journal of Social Policy, 34, 4, 557-577.

Ho, C. (2015) ‘Grandchild care, intergenerational transfers, and grandparents’ labor supply’, Review of Economics of the Household, 13, 2, 359-384.

Sear, R., and Coall, D. (2011), ‘How much does family matter? Cooperative breeding and the demographic transition’, Population and Development Review, 37, S1, 81-112.

Viitanen, T. K. (2005) ‘Cost of childcare and female employment in the UK’, Labour, 19, S1, 149-179.

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