Retirement was a receding concept for many grandparents even before the recession. But now, with pocketbooks and portfolios squeezed, and with many adult children out of work and struggling economically, grandparents are expected as never before to pitch in. So, when the 30th anniversary of the nation's first Grandparents' Day rolls around on Sept. 13, take your bow. Then, get back to work!
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While acknowledging that the current economic environment has created undeserved problems for millions of families, author Georgia Witkin says that grandparents not only have risen to the occasion but likely feel energized and fulfilled by their new obligations. Witkin teaches psychiatry at The Mount Sinai Medical Center, works with the Web site grandparents.com and is an expert on family relationships and stress management.
The reality of grandparenting, she notes, is far removed from the notion of "Gram and Gramps" having occasional visits and taking Bobby and Susie to the local zoo. First off, the average age at which people first become grandparents is only 48. People will be grandparents for a long, long time, and likely great-grandparents as well.
More financial stress is a reality, she adds. "We surveyed 10,000 grandparents in the past few months," Witkin says. Most have long supported their children and grandchildren with longer-term goals such as help buying a home and college funds. But nearly three-fourths are also providing cash support for basic needs. "This is a big shift," she says. Also, 72 percent of grandparents now provide some kind of support for regular day care, largely because mothers have been forced to seek additional income.
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"The myths are that grandparents resent" all the extra work, Witkin says. "But the truth is that most of the grandparents that I have interviewed . . . say they love it. They're really good at parenting, and they love the idea that they're needed again and not being put out to pasture."
Further, baby boomers are changing expectations of what being a grandparent is all about, just as they have re-defined other activities. "Within a year, more than 50 percent of baby boomers will be grandparents," she says. "Many of the baby boomers have grandparents of their own who are still alive." Multiple generations and frequent re-marriages have created a glut of grandparents in many families. Witkin's own three grandchildren have no fewer than 11 grandparents. Among other things, having so many grandparents has forced development of new naming conventions. Witkin is known as "G.G." and not grandma. "We don't see ourselves as the same kinds of grandparents as before," she says. "The older grandparents have those older names. You can only have one grandma in a family."
Here are other grandparent facts, provided by grandparents.com, the MetLife Mature Market Institute and the U.S. Census Bureau:
- Among grandparents providing financial support to their extended families, 23 percent help with daycare, 40 percent with housing (mortgage and rent), 21 percent with education, 70 percent with cash for daily expenses, and 24 percent with healthcare.
- They spend $52 billion a year in supporting their families, including $32 billion in educational and related costs; they are responsible for 45 percent of all consumer spending on gifts.
- They control three-fourths of the nation's wealth.
- They have spent an average of $8,661 on their grandchildren during the past five years, or a total of $370 billion.
- Twenty-six percent are providing more support, due to the recession.
- Nearly 43 million households include a grandparent.
- 6.2 million grandparents had grandchildren younger than 18 years old living with them in 2007.
- 2.5 million grandparents were responsible for most of the needs of grandchildren living with them in 2007.
- 30 percent of children younger than five years of age, and whose mothers worked outside the home, were cared for by a grandparent in 2005.
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