The Grandparent Economy: a secret labour force

This week I am at work, my wife is at work, our daughter is at pre-school. And her Grandad is at our house painting. We started the process of painting our house a year ago. All the colours had been chosen and paints bought. We’ve made some progress, too; the living room is done, A’s room has been changed from green to pink, and I managed to re-do the hall, stairs and landing (although not very well). At some point over the past year things stalled.

It’s hard to paint in a “living house”, where children and cats are running around.

It’s hard to find the time to set up things, to focus on the job, and to keep a steady hand. I’ve been fooling myself that I can get it done alone, that all I need is a bit of time at the weekends to do it little-by-little. Of course, with the best of intentions this has proven to be impossible.

Paint pots have become door stops and paint brushes that were dipped in water ready for the next painting session have become rusted and ruined.

I would have happily continued on this path to a 10-year decorating strategy but for the impending arrival of a new baby. The nesting instinct has kicked in and now we are cracking open the paint tins with renewed vigour. But nothing has really changed and it’s not going to get done in time. It’s just too overwhelming.

That’s where Grandad comes in.

Grandad lives over 100 miles away. He recently retired and has more time on his hands. He wants to stay busy and he wants to do something meaningful. And so this week he is staying with us and is kindly getting on with some painting. Not only is this very much appreciated but he is also meticulous and a perfectionist. He wants to do a good job because he believes things have been built to last. This is why he wants to put an undercoat on wood that I would happily just gloss over. This is why he takes off cupboard doors from their hinges to paint behind them rather than just tying them back with string. This is why he is perfect for the job.

It’s difficult for the millennial dad to decorate as well as work and look after the family.

And because we’re trying to do so much our attention to detail suffers. Our generation doesn’t see the long-term value in things; if something is broken we just replace it. So why bother giving extra coats of paint to a door that we may not need in a few years? But this is the beauty of the baby boomer generation that they were brought up in a world where things were only just picking up after the Second World War. They were taught to look after things and repair them, not just throw them out when finished with them. And I can see their point as I look at the errant paint marks and uneven lines from my rush job on the hall.

The pride that Grandad has in doing things, especially practical jobs, is a really valuable commodity for families. Those of us who are lucky enough to have parents and grandparents who are willing to help out should make sure we appreciate them. I know we do.

This got me thinking about the power of the grandparent economy.

I don’t think our society really makes an effort to quantify the level of support that we get from the older generation. What about the value of childcare to a family who would otherwise have to employ an expensive childminder? Or the value of decorating or plumbing in a modern world where hiring a professional can be out of reach for many.

The support of grandparents allows us to thrive as families and I believe it should be recognised. I’ve written elsewhere that the previous generations took all the best mortgages and pensions, and that the millennials will be the first generation in a long time who will end up worse off than our predecessors. That may be true to some extent, but it’s not their fault individually. And individually they give us an awful lot of help. I’m sure there are facts and figures that can be drawn from this.

Perhaps we should make more of an effort to recognise the unpaid contribution of many of our parents and grandparents in supporting us and making our lives better.

On the other side, I hope that grandparents feel appreciated and that they get to spend quality time with people they care about. After all, isn’t quality over quantity is what life’s all about?

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