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Let's Retire Out-of-Date Stereotypes About Grandmothers

Many women reach their peak after their grandchildren are born.

What do Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Meryl Streep, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have in common?

  • They are all in their seventies
  • They are all working
  • They are all grandmothers

In short, they are all prominent examples of a growing demographic that challenges stereotypes and requires updating.

But these employed grandmothers are by no means alone. Older adults are working longer. By 2022, 20 percent of women (and 27 percent of men) ages 65 and older will be in the labor force. One out of every five female septuagenarians will be employed in the next four years. Medical advances and longer life expectancy are fueling this trend. The number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected to more than double from 46 million today to over 98 million by 2060.

Social scientists are showing a new interest in “grandma." “Grandparents represent a bigger chunk of the population than ever before, according to new data from the Census Bureau,” wrote Sharon Jayson in the New York Times in 2017. The number of grandparents had already grown by 24 percent since 2001 when there were an estimated 56.1 million grandparents. “We would expect more people reporting as grandparents because of the aging of the population,” said Wendy Manning, a sociologist who is the director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University. “In 2001, 38 percent of women age 30 or older with a child at least 15 years old were grandparents, as were 31 percent of men in that category,” Manning continued. By 2014, 61 percent of these women and 57 percent of these men were grandparents.

These dramatic shifts raise, once again, the question of why females live long past their reproductive years. In this regard, we are unlike most other great apes. One theory, the "grandmother hypothesis,” speculates that human females survive well past their reproductive prime because of the benefits that post-menopausal women offer to their grandchildren.

Kristen Hawkes, an anthropologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and her colleagues proposed this hypothesis while studying hunter-gathers in Tanzania in the 1980s and 90s. The team realized that grandmothers provided the help new mothers needed to continue foraging for themselves and their already weaned children while they were caring for their new infants. When grandmothers helped with foraging, their grandchildren were healthier and heavier and were weaned at a younger age. Unburdened by the need to care for their infants, new mothers were more successful at foraging and were able to have more children. Thus, grandmothers who survived long past menopause provided an important service and increased the reproductive advantage of their offspring.

Although the specifics are dramatically different, the grandmother hypothesis is as relevant now as it was eons ago. Today, grandparents are “the primary caregivers for more than 2.9 million children nationwide,” according to a 2018 report from the Silver Century Foundation. Even so, it shows how eventually grandmothers grew from representing one percent of female caregivers to 43 percent — thus achieving “grandmothering equilibrium.”

Our failure to provide high-quality, affordable, and accessible childcare means that grandmothers will continue to be a primary source of such care for millions of working mothers. By the time American women are 40 to 44, 86 percent of them are mothers, and unless they are affluent — or have a retired but still energetic grandma who’s willing to pitch in full time when the kids are little — the child care crisis hits families hard.

Of course, not all employed seventy-somethings are grandmothers. But, a great many are. And grandmothers get a bad rap.

According to Sandra Martin, writing in the Globe and Mail, a common stereotype portrays granny retiring “to her rocking chair [where she] is transformed into …. the plump, kindly old woman in her dotage, sitting with her knitting in an isolated corner of the room.” Basically, once she is a grandmother, everything else in her life is irrelevant. In Martin’s view, “I think I would rather be villainous than pushed off-stage, as though becoming a grandmother subsumes everything else in your life under a fog of irrelevance.”

The Conversation suggests a way to gauge the power of that stereotype. Recall how often in 2016 Hillary Clinton was asked how becoming a grandmother would affect her candidacy for president. “How many newspapers asked that question when Mitt Romney was proudly photographed with his 18 grandchildren, or when George W. Bush and John McCain showed theirs off for the press?"

Answer: Zero.

So should Hillary, unlike her male peers, have set aside political ambitions to help her daughter care for her grandchild? Recall that Nancy Pelosi, upon regaining speakership of the House of Representatives in 2018, invited all her grandchildren, as well as those of the other members of the House to the podium. While she relished that role, she was never defined (or constrained) by it.

How accurate is the granny stereotype for the women mentioned above? Apparently, Judge Ginsburg never got the “irrelevant” memo. When her grandson, Paul, got married in October 2018, she was not to be sidelined. She officiated at the ceremony, which was held at “her place”—the Supreme Court in Washington D.C.

The idea of Grandma baking the occasional batch of cookies doesn’t match today’s realities. Of the 65 million grandparents in the United States in 2012, 7 million, or 10 percent, lived with at least one grandchild, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Census Bureau. In most of these homes, at least one parent is present, too, but the household is headed by a grandparent. Further, about 39 percent of these grandparents had cared for their grandchildren for five years or more.

Among the people raised by a grandparent, at least for part of their childhoods, are Maya Angelou, Carol Burnett, and two former presidents, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. According to The Atlantic, “This pattern is more common than ever these days.”

With women living longer and remaining healthier as they age, more of them will reach the pinnacle of their careers later in life than ever before. Pelosi didn’t run for office until she was 47 after her children were grown. Meryl Streep started making movies early in life and just never stopped. Elizabeth Warren, as a Harvard professor, co-authored a critically acclaimed book with her daughter. Comedian and TV commentator Whoopi Goldberg is not only a grandma but a great grandmother.

The famous psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson, once suggested that at about age 65 people should curtail their ambitions, park their egos, and focus on mentoring the next generation. But women, more than men, often spend many of their early years caring for children. At 65, many are just hitting their stride, taking on challenges, and reaching for new goals for their 70s and beyond.

Let’s stop perpetuating those old stereotypes of grandmas as "sweet but peripheral—the bakers of cookies rather than the writers of tuition and rent checks—not to mention Supreme Court briefs." Let’s show more examples of what real, modern, grandmothers are all about.

More from Rosalind C. Barnett, Ph.D., and Caryl Rivers
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