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The Demography Of Grandparenthood

Demographically, increased longevity, decreased and delayed fertility, and changing patterns of geographic mobility have altered the dimensions of grandparenthood. Longevity is affected by mortality rates, and over the last century, declining death rates have made it more likely that children and young adults will have multiple grandparents in their family networks. Whereas in the nineteenth century few people lived long enough to enjoy the status of grandparenthood for very long, by the end of the twentieth century, grandparental careers spanned several decades. Additionally, changes in mortality have made great-grandparenthood more common; according to Roberto and Skoglund between 40 and 50 percent of all older adults are great-grandparents. Life expectancies that reach into the eighth decade have increased the number of grandparent/grandchild relationships, elongated the grandparental career, and fundamentally altered the interactions between grandparents and grandchildren. Grandchildren increasingly see their grandparents age from young-old to old-old; similarly, grandparents increasingly see their grandchildren age from childhood to adulthood.

Decreased and delayed fertility during the twentieth century also altered the face of grandparenthood. Twentieth-century fertility, despite significant swings during the Great Depression and post–World War II years, declined from an average of four children per family in 1900 to approximately two children per family in 2000. At the same time, delayed childbearing and increased childlessness have also altered the childbearing experience in ways that have had significant effects on grandparenthood. Although it is still true that the overwhelming majority of older persons are or will become grandparents at some point in their lives, declining fertility means that each grandparent will have fewer grandchildren and that fewer grandparents will attain that status while still raising children of their own. Delayed childbearing has the potential to delay the entrance into grandparenthood, although most who become grandparents do so by age fifty (Uhlenberg and Kilby). Finally, rising levels of childlessness recorded at the end of the twentieth century make it likely that more than a quarter of all older persons will never become grandparents in the twenty-first century.

High rates of geographic mobility, distancing parents from grown children and grandparents from their grandchildren, have also necessitated a change in the way that the cross-generations relate to each other. Over the twentieth century, declining numbers of children lived in extended family households (consisting of a child, a parent, and a grandparent under one roof) and the physical distance between residences increased, with the potential for decreasing interaction opportunities for grandparents and grandchildren. Despite changes in geographic proximity, however, it is also true that even at the end of the twentieth century, more than three-quarters of all older persons who had children lived close to at least one child, which means a greater likelihood of access to grandchildren. Research consistently shows that strong bonds between the generations are maintained despite geographic distance, but the mode of interaction is often something other than face-to-face contact. Technological advances in communication (such as telephones and the Internet) and transportation (rapid rail and air travel) have allowed grandparents and grandchildren to maintain strong relationships despite physical distance.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 2Grandparenthood - The Demography Of Grandparenthood, Socio-structural Changes Affecting Grandparenthood, Grandparent/grandchild Relationships, Diversity In Grandparenthood