The stereotype of a U.S. grandparent has long been that of a kindly, graying, sedentary individual who stayed close to home or lived quietly and mostly out of sight in what were called "retirement homes." Though that image was widely accepted, it probably was never true. It certainly is not now. Census figures released last week indicate that many of America's grandparents are now extraordinarily active participants in society.
There are several reasons for the phenomenon, if something that is so widespread can still be described by that term. First, there are lots of grandparents. There are now about 62.8 million in the United States -- one of every four adults, the most ever, but that number is expected to climb as Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, become grandparents.
Demographers predict that about one of every three adults in the United States in 2020 will be a grandparent. That shift in population will bring enormous change to the social, political and economic climate of the nation.
Today's grandparents are younger and healthier than grandparents of previous generations. That suggests that they'll live longer on average than grandparents of yore. It means, too, that the group will wield considerable power in some areas. Politicians, for example, will have to tread carefully when they consider anything that relates to Medicare, Social Security and other programs that directly affect those of a certain age and status.
The grandparent cohort is changing the American workplace, too. Many grandparents are still working. While many of them do so because the current economy makes living without a working income hard, a surprising number choose to work long after what was once considered normal retirement age. Consequently, there are fewer job openings for younger men and women who want to enter the workforce. Extended work lives have a broader economic effect as well.
Grandparents have always helped buoy the marketplace, but in recent years they've become even more important to the U.S. economy. Many have no mortgage or other large debts and thus have considerable disposable income. As a group, they tend not to spend recklessly, but wisely and steadily -- the kind of infusion the economy can use.
Grandparents increasingly play an important social role as well. They've become front-line caregivers for family members, particularly grandchildren. According to 50-state census data released last week, about 5.8 million children, almost eight percent of all the nation's kids, live with grandparents identified as the head of a household. That's an increase of 6.3 percent since 2000.
Reasons for increased grandparental involvement in raising their grandchildren are many. Sometimes parents are physically, emotionally or economically unable to do so. Whatever the reason, grandparents are increasingly able and willing to take over the job. Consequently, grandparents in the car pool line at school, at PTA meetings and in pediatricians' offices are an increasingly common sight. It's just one indication of the new importance of grandparents in every-day life.