Theorising and understanding grandparents: why now?

Evolving demographic, economic and social contexts across the globe are creating diverse societies. As a result, grandparenting has become a more commonly experienced and important familial role and one that is more varied and distinctive than it was 50 years ago.  Within these contexts individuals are doing grandparenting in very different ways. These doing’s (or the practices of grandparenting) are strongly influenced by global trends, cultural norms and welfare policies but are also cross cut by individual circumstances and social inequalities including gender, age, martial status, class and access to material resources.

Contemporary Grandparenting, a new book from The Policy Press, explores and emphasizes the interconnectedness of these social-cultural structures and norms, and the practices of grandparents. Some of these trends and responses are explored below:

Ageing and fertility

Increasing mortality and decreasing fertility rates characterize contemporary demographics in both the West and developing nations to varying extents, creating more dynamic and variable family relationships and care patterns.  Media commentators have a tendency to interpret these changes as being about ageing population crises. China, for example faces what Branigan defines as a ‘timebomb’; it is ageing, and at the same time there are reportedly fewer younger people who are able to or willing to care for their elderly family members.  In the UK, this crisis has been described as a significant contemporary economic threat.

However, children and grandchildren have also been found to rely upon their older and ageing grandparents for financial support and other informal forms of care. Part One of Contemporary Grandparenting, nuances this debate by revealing that grandparents are central to supporting the increased participation of women in the workplace, but that this is strongly influenced by welfare policy contexts, which must also be taken into consideration.

Changing ‘family’ structures

‘Family’ is changing; the prevalence of marriage breakdown, divorce and separation, (considered particularly problematic in the UK, the US and parts of Northern Europe, but less so in China and Asia and some southern parts of Europe) has differing implications for how intergenerational relationships are negotiated and interpreted.

The impact of divorce also has varying outcomes in relation to grandparenting; grandparents have been found to cause additional damage in situations of divorce, while others suggest they should have greater rights in being able to adopt grandchildren. Timonen and Doyles’ chapter, in Part Two of the book particularly nuances these arguments by revealing that grandparents make active choices about their level of involvement in the lives of their children and grandchildren and that this does not always sit comfortably with wider welfare contexts.

Global Trends

As well as increasing the importance of grandparenting in family contexts, the authors are keen to acknowledge the role of globalization in altering the family relationships that grandparenting is embedded in. As well as demographic change, societies are characterized by increased geographical mobility, changing trends in paid employment (especially including women’s participation in the labour force) and the increased uptake of communication technologies. Taken together, these trends are altering the ways in which individuals respond to their role and identities as grandparents, as several of the chapters explore.

Contemporary Grandparenting

A significant message of this essential edited collection is that grandparents often act with agency to negotiate increasingly dynamic intergenerational relationships in changing familial and social structures, playing a major role in the provision of care, maintaining and establishing well being and supporting changing families. Speaking to an interdisciplinary audience, this collection significantly brings grandparents into debates about family, welfare state, population ageing and identities.

Anna Tarrant, Contributor to Contemporary Grandparenting
Research Associate in the Faculty of Health and Social Care at the Open University.

1 Response to “Theorising and understanding grandparents: why now?”


  1. 1 dratarrant June 14, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Reblogged this on Dr Anna Tarrant and commented:
    This is my most recent blog post, written for The Polity Press blog. Here I explore why studies and research about grandparents are important in contemporary societies, and unsettle some of the myths of an ageing population.


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