Demographic Factors And Grandparenthood
The traditional image of grandparents is retired people in rocking chairs—or in the kitchen baking cookies—with all of their time available for family members, including grandchildren. This is no longer the case. Better health conditions have made today's grandparents physically younger and socially more active than the grandparent depicted in traditional images. The retirement age has increased and more women are now in the labor force. As a result, many grandparents are employed. In addition, better health and financial conditions for elderly people have made them less dependent on subsequent generations. Due to a prolonged life expectancy, grandparents are also likely to be caregivers of their own parents.
Maximiliane Szinovacz's (1998) research shows that 35 percent of grandparents work more than 30 hours a week, 12 percent have children age under 19 in the household, 67 percent are currently married, and 34 percent have living parents. Thus, the role of grandparents competes with other responsibilities, such as employment, social life, and family.
Some women become grandmothers very early, often in their thirties. These "off-time grandmothers" tend to be unhappy with their grand-motherhood due to the strains of various roles (grandmother, mother, daughter, granddaughter, employee, and girlfriend) and reluctance to accept grandmotherhood, which symbolizes old age (Timberlake and Chipungu 1992). "On-time grandmothers" seem to cope with this new role relatively better. This pattern also may be due to the prevalent "age norm," or a prescriptive timetable for the ordering of major life events, including becoming a grandparent (Neugarten, Moore, and Lowe 1965). Becoming a grandparent younger than forty-five or fifty years old is a violation against this age norm and may cause embarrassment.
Due to the increased divorce rate and the increase in single motherhood, many households lack a parent, and grandparents often play a surrogate parent's role. Parents' death and drug and alcohol abuse may also necessitate custodial grandparenting. Esme Fuller-Thomson, Meredith Minkler, and Diane Driver (1997) show that one in ten grandparents have taken primary responsibility for raising their grandchildren for at least six months. The most typical scenario is a single mother, either divorced or never married, living with her children and her mother, which is particularly common among African Americans and low-income families in the United States. Grandmothers usually serve as surrogate parents in place of father figures in these single-mother households. This racial difference seems to be due not only to a larger proportion of single mothers among African Americans, but also to their cultural preferences, including stronger intergenerational relationships (Fuller-Thomson, Minkler, and Driver 1997).
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