The Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) study, funded by the Scottish Government and carried out by ScotCen Social Research, is an important longitudinal study that tracks the lives of groups of Scottish children as they move through their early years. The study found that grandparents are the single largest provider of childcare in Scotland, with as many as two thirds (67%) of parents who used childcare for their 6 year old regularly relying on grandparents. The percentage of children receiving care from a grandparent is highest for children whose main carer works at least 35 hours a week, and increases in the school holidays. As such, grandparents make an important contribution to the economy by allowing parents to return to work following their child’s birth. But there are some important demographic and policy changes which could throw a spanner in the works.
Firstly, many grandparents who care for their grandchildren at the moment or have done so over the last 10 years of the study benefitted from a younger retirement age – currently 60 for women and 65 for men – so were more available to provide informal childcare. Recent data from GUS shows that 36% of maternal grandmothers and 43% of maternal grandfathers of children aged 6 were in employment. As retirement age increases, grandparents will be expected to work well into their 60s. With an increase in the percentage of grandparents in employment, fewer will have the time spare to look after their grandchildren.
Moreover, we know from GUS that grandparents are more likely to provide frequent help to children with younger mothers. For example, 64% of children whose mothers were under 20 at the time of the child’s birth stay overnight with their maternal grandparents at least once a month, compared with 12% of children whose mothers were over 40. As people wait longer to start a family – the average age of mothers in Scotland has increased from 27.4 years in 1991 to 30.1 in 2014 – their own parents are themselves older and may be less physically able to look after young children.
It certainly seems that grandparents are Scottish parents’ first choice when it comes to childcare – and why wouldn’t they be? They are extremely flexible, low cost and have an existing bond with the child. For these reasons (and countless others), there isn’t an obvious replacement. Scottish Government legislation requiring councils to provide free childcare has been criticised by some working parents as inadequate.
As each generation of grandparents gets older and policies which extend their working lives come into effect, their availability to take care of their grandchildren on a regular basis is likely to decline. Scotland may well face a childcare crisis in the near future.
This article was first published by The Scotsman.