The Johnsons.

The joys of getting down with the grandkids

Campaigners for inter-generational justice miss the mark

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Grandparenthood is not a choice, but a blessing. As Shakespeare might have said: be not afraid of having grandchildren thrust upon you. Our house having been a multigenerational home for more than a year, and now having become a grandfather for the second time, I can say in all honesty that these are among the best things that have ever happened to me.

My first reason for thinking so is that, just as parents should never take grandparents for granted, so grandparents should never presuppose their own existence. For much of the world, infant mortality is still a huge obstacle to the happiness of living to see one’s posterity.

Until a couple of centuries ago, that was still the case in this country, even for royalty. In his marvellous new book Tomorrow’s People: The Future of Humanity in Ten Numbers, Paul Morland asks: when was the last time that an eldest son inherited the throne of England from his father and later passed it on in turn to his own son? The answer is a shock: Henry V, more than six centuries ago.

The commonest reason is that heirs often died in their youth. Our present Queen’s grandfather, George V, only inherited the throne because his elder brother Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, had already died, aged 28, at the end of the influenza pandemic of 1889-92, thereby predeceasing their grandmother, Queen Victoria. Even our most-married monarch, Henry VIII, had just three surviving children from his six wives, and no grandchildren. Queen Anne had 17 children, none of whom survived her.

Kings fared even worse in France. Louis XIV had six legitimate children and numerous illegitimate ones, but after a reign of unique longevity, he had outlived not only his son, but his grandson and great-grandson too. Louis XV, who succeeded him at the age of five, was his great-great-grandson — yet the Sun King was only 76 when he died in 1715. Yet throughout his 72-year reign the monarch who hoped to be known as Louis the Great had been the richest and most powerful man in the world.

We should be grateful to live in a period of unprecedented health and prosperity

What all this means is that, instead of complaining about our lot, we should be grateful to live in a period of unprecedented health and prosperity. To be a grandfather is to savour the joys of fatherhood for a second time round, only minus the responsibility. And because we men especially are living longer, and enjoying a healthier old age, we can still make a useful contribution to the lives of our grandchildren or even great grandchildren.

This larger role for grandparents is all the more remarkable given that, on average, women in England and Wales are having their first child later than ever before — if they have children at all. Last month, the Office for National Statistics reported that, for the first time, half of all women aged 30 have yet to give birth; one in five are still childless at 45.

Grandparenthood is therefore almost as much a lottery as ever: we are far more likely to live into old age than even a generation ago, but delayed parenthood plus a stagnant or falling birthrate makes grandchildren ever less common.

The most familiar consequence of the post modern demographic destiny of population decline, to which almost all developed countries are already prey, is what one might call the politics of senescence. Morland examines the fate of Japan, the oldest society in history. There, the word “rougai” (used of old people who annoy or patronise the young) captures the impact of intergenerational conflict on an ageing society. Despite a deeply traditional and ethnically homogeneous culture, working-age Japanese are abandoning their deferential attitude to their seniors.

The elderly are now so numerous that they are increasingly resented

The elderly are now so numerous that they are increasingly resented, not only in Japan but across the Western world, too. It is easy to say (and is sometimes said) that baby boomers have been hoist by their own petard, because it was the first cohorts of that generation who pioneered the rebellion of youth in the 1960s.

But the full-frontal assault now being mounted in the name of justice that pits generations against each other misses the mark. It highlights inequalities in property and income, for example, but ignores families such as ours where burdens are shared. Above all, it gives no weight at all to the greater role played by grandparents.

Take for example a recent article in the Sunday Times by Ed Conway, the Sky News economics and data editor. Carefully researched, with an impressive-looking display of charts, it was headed: “Should we reimburse the young?” Conway’s argument really rests on one striking statistic: the average rise in property prices over the last two years (£24,600) is larger than the median income of 18-to-29-year-olds (£23,250).

But does this mean that oldies should therefore be taxed purely on the basis of age, rather than income? Or that the state should raid their assets with a Corbyn-style wealth tax in order to “compensate” twenty-somethings for their sacrifices during a pandemic that supposedly never posed much risk to them? Such proposals to institutionalise fiscal ageism are fortunately unlikely to be seriously entertained by any of the major political parties. But the assumption that the housing gap between the generations is monstrously inequitable ignores a mass of evidence that points the other way.

Turning to the Daily Telegraph property section on 5 February, I find the following comment on the Camden area, popular with students at UCL, from Roisin O’Neill of estate agents Marsh & Parsons: “Half of our market is first-time buyers and 75 per cent have financial help from the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’. One buyer, who was 23, was gifted a £1.3 million property that they bought in cash.”

Such intergenerational generosity from families (often grandparents as well as parents) is one of the main drivers of the buoyant market that is held against those same oldies. There seems to be little reliable data on the scale of the largesse of the “Bank of Mum and Dad”, but it has risen considerably during the pandemic; one estimate is that on average first-time buyers receive £20,000 apiece towards a deposit. This of course ignores all the other financial help that young families receive from older relatives, covering everything from education to weddings.

Elsewhere in the same paper, we read that rate rises will have their biggest impact on supposedly affluent couples in their fifties or sixties who still have large mortgages to pay off because they have always put their families first. Some will now have to go on working for longer or even, if that is not an option, find their debts unsustainable. Even Ed Conway concedes that the pandemic has seen the biggest loss of work among those aged 50 to 64 — many of whom will be grandparents. Another assumption implicit in the generational justice critique is that all older people are earning a multiple of their children’s incomes.

At least as far as the self-employed are concerned, this is far from the case. Most of us are just about keeping our heads above water, while many of our juniors have lifestyles and expectations in excess of our own.

As for the £370 billion estimated to have been spent on the pandemic: most job subsidies particularly benefitted those on salaries below £2,500 a month, mainly younger workers. And it is the young for whom any spare cash that those still working hard in their sixties or over can save is earmarked. When the seniors downsize, their first concern is always to gift as much as possible to children and grandchildren.

If it’s a choice between husband and grandchildren, the kids win every time

Grandparents are eager to help their families in countless other ways, too. My wife, a birth educator, teaches “Grante-natal” classes to prospective grandparents who want to be up to speed on how early parenting has changed since the days when they became parents. One granny I know takes time off work every week to drive across England and back to look after her three small grandchildren for a day. If it’s a choice between husband and grandchildren, the kids win every time.

She, like many others, has set her boundaries. However, the Gransnet online forum is full of grandmothers who feel pressured to provide free childcare and babysitting on demand. This is not always the fault of young parents, who are squeezed between the exigencies of careers and the expense of childminders, nurseries and kindergartens.

But families need to acknowledge that their elderly members deserve consideration, too. In our household there is generally a fair division of labour; some days, though, one feels more like the butler than the patriarch.

In my lifetime, the role of grandparents has changed beyond recognition. My own were sighted only rarely and saw their function as providing treats. If they seemed to belong to another era, that is because they did.

My grandfather, a pioneering physician who had once numbered Churchill among his patients, introduced me to other eminent medical researchers, such as Sir Richard Doll, who proved the link between tobacco and cancer. (I have him to thank for the fact that I was never tempted to smoke.)

After my grandfather died, I accompanied my widowed granny to plays and concerts. From a theatrical family, she had made her debut on the West End stage in the 1920s, but her career ended as soon as she married. Granny never sounded envious of her contemporaries, such as Gertrude Lawrence or John Gielgud, who became big stars. For women of her generation, that was just how it was.

My other grandmother lived far away, a remote but revered figure who had been widowed in wartime, many years before I was born. I recall vividly my last visit to Nana, by now very old and cared for by nuns in a Wrexham nursing home. I told her how impressed I was by the local church. She assumed that I meant the modest Catholic one, not the vast medieval C of E edifice. Then she twigged. “Oh, that one,” she exclaimed. “Don’t you worry: we’ll get it back one day.”

Born in the era of Manning and Newman, she had witnessed the Catholic revival and, with a vigorous and charismatic Polish Pope in the Vatican, assumed that the conversion of England for which she had prayed all her life was at hand. O sancta simplicitas!

Today’s grandparents are expected to get down with the kids — which most of us are more than happy to do. But one had better say goodbye to the dignity and deference once accorded to old age.

The mutual love of a grandparent and grandchild is no less miraculous for being utterly innocent and unselfish. It needs to be: by the time one has sought to soothe a bawling newborn for an evening, even the most doting grandpa is glad to hand the by now blissfully slumbering baby back to her mummy.

Nothing can replace, or indeed compare with, the fierce intensity of maternal or paternal love. But the gentle presence of a living ancestor has its own power to arouse a child’s curiosity.

The other day our grandson, still only two but now a big brother, asked me: “Were you a baby once?”

“Yes,” I replied.

He looked up at me: “And did you have dinosaurs then?”

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