Tag Archives: grandparents

A step toward civilization (and have more children), Shanghai edition

Over the course of two weeks in China, I saw several versions of signs like this:

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“A small step forward, a big step for civilization” (向前一小步, 文明一大步).

This one is posted in the old-town section of Nanxun (now a tourist attraction), naturally, above a urinal.* Invoking civilization may be overblown for the problem of men standing too far away (which didn’t seem to be especially extreme, compared to U.S. urinals), but China has a long tradition of using dramatic slogans to call citizens to higher common purpose. Here was one that struck me, in downtown Shanghai:

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Every family striving to become a civilized family; everyone involved in its creation (家家争做文明家庭; 人人叁与创建活动).

This is from the Shanghai public health authorities. (No, I don’t know Chinese, but I love trying to use a dictionary, and I ask people.) The fascinating thing about that is the composition of the civilized family pictured: father, mother, two grandparents, and two children. 

Fertility rates in China are well below replacement level, as they are in other East Asian countries, meaning the average woman will have fewer than two children in her lifetime and the population will eventually shrink (barring immigration). China’s total fertility rate nationally is probably at about 1.5. In Shanghai, a metro area with some 20 million people, the norm was already one child per family before the one-child policy was implemented in 1980, and fertility has continued to fall; it most recently clocked in at a shockingly low .88 per woman as of 2008.

Reasons for ultra-low fertility are varied and contested, but likely culprits include expensive housing and education costs for children. It was reported to me informally that about half of children can go to college-track high schools instead of vocational schools, and that is determined by a standardized test administered at the end of middle school. That puts tremendous pressure on parents with middle-class aspirations. Which helps explain the extensive system of expensive supplemental private education, as promoted by this ad I saw in an upscale mall:

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School advertisement, Shanghai

The website for this company promises, “Super IQ, Wealth of Creativity, Instant Memory Capacity.” How many kids are you going to send to this private program?

One of the five perfect, super-involved parents at the parent-child class is a man, which may or may not seem like a lot. Of the many people taking their kids to school on scooters, I didn’t see a lot with more than one child, and the only picture I got was of one piloted by the apparent dad (note also something you don’t see here much: schoolboy in pink shirt):

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Man taking children to school, Shanghai

This recalls another probable cause of low-low fertility, the gender-stuck family and employment practices that keep women responsible for children and other care work (scooter dads notwithstanding). In conjunction with women outperforming men in college graduation rates these days (as in the U.S.), this indirectly reduces fertility by leading to delayed marriage, and directly reduces fertility by causing parents to decide against a second child.

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Grandparent, parent, child, in Hangzhou

The weak system of care hurts on both ends, with people having fewer children because raising them is expensive, and people needing children to take care of old people because public support is lacking. This may be one reason why grandparents can have a positive effect on parents’ motivation to have children, as reported by Yingchun Ji and colleagues (including Feinian Chen, who hosted my visit). The fact that it is common for grandparents to provide extensive care for their grandchildren, as Feinian Chen has described (paywall), presumably helps strengthen their pronatal case.

Lots of pictures of grandparents taking care of a single grandchild to choose from. Here’s one, from the (awesome) Shanghai Museum:

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Grandparent and child, Shanghai

The one-child policy ended in 2016, and couples no longer have to get permission to have a first or second child (but they do for a third or more). This change alone, although a better-late-than-never thing, may not do much to increase birth rates. That is the conclusion from studies of families for whom the policy was relaxed earlier. Sadly, although birth rates were already falling dramatically in the 1970s and the one-child policy was not responsible for the trend, the policy still (in addition to large scale human rights abuses) created many millions of one-child families that will struggle to meet intergenerational care obligations in the absence of adequate public support. (Here’s a good brief summary from Wang Feng, Baochang Gu, and Yong Cai.)

This is a challenge for civilization.

The pictures here, and a few hundred more, are on my Flickr site under creative commons license.


Americans who love the funny translations of signs in China may be in for some disappointment, as the Standardization Administration has announced plans to implement thousands of stock translations in the service sector nationwide.

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Grandparents day: Still no need to send a card

I felt guilty this afternoon when I noticed a lot of people clicking on this old post about Grandparents Day. I should have updated it sooner. Better late than never, here is the updated trend of children (ages 0-14) living in the households of their grandparents, by poverty status:

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It looks like that near-poor group may have been given a boost by the recession. But the trend is basically upward for everyone.

My comments from a few years ago are still OK:

Interestingly, as the figure shows, the jump in multigenerational living was greatest for the non-poor (those over 200% of the poverty line). In addition to fallout from job losses, one can imagine this includes families displaced by foreclosure and job loss, grandparents who can’t afford to move into retirement communities because they can’t sell their homes, and other complications of the real estate crash.

The children most likely to live with grandparents, however, are the near-poor — those between 100% and 200% of the poverty line. This might include a lot of would-be poor families in which the grandparents are employed, bringing the total family income over the poverty line.

My older research into multigenerational living produced compelling evidence that these arrangements are usually not a first choice in the U.S. these days — because the more money people have, the less likely they are to share housing. Still, the effect of all this could be more intergenerational solidarity and close relationships. But I wouldn’t assume that.

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When regular old mothers aren’t old-enough looking

As I wrote about the older-birth-mothers issue recently (first, and then), I didn’t comment on the photo illustrations people are using with the stories. But when an alert reader sent this one to me, from Katie Roiphe’s post in Slate, I couldn’t help it:

roiphe-stock-pageSomething about that picture and “women in their late 30s or 40s” rubbed my correspondent the wrong way, or rather, led her to write, “Late 30s or early 40s?!?”

Since this was from a legit website that credits its stock agency, I was able to visit Thinkstock and search for the photo. Sure enough:

roiphe-stockOf course, it’s not news, so the title “Middle-aged woman holding her newborn grandson” doesn’t make it a less true illustration of the older-mother phenomenon than one captioned “Desperate aging woman clings to feminist myth that it’s OK to delay childbearing.” But it gives you an idea of what the Slate editor was looking for in the stock photo.

I looked around a little, and found one other funny one. Another Slate essay, this one by Allison Benedikt, was reprinted in Canada’s National Post, and they laid it out like this:

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When I visited the Getty Images site, I discovered this picture was taken in China. Here’s how it’s presented:

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This one, which is a picture of real people, looks like it could be a grandmother, or maybe more likely a caretaker. Regardless, it’s sold as an illustration of a story about China’s elderly having too few grandchildren to take care of them, which is vaguely related to the content of the story, but that’s not what the Post’s caption points to:

It’s true that older parents are more established and experienced but many of those experiences are, from a genetic point of view, negative, says Allison Benedikt.

Anyway, there were others where the women looked pretty old for the story, but I couldn’t find them in the catalogs, so I stopped.

This is all relevant to one of my critiques of these stories, which is that they make it seem like having children at older ages has become more common than it was in the past. That’s true compared with 1980, but not 1960. The difference is it’s more likely to be their first child nowadays. So Benedikt is way off when she writes,

Remember how there was that one kid in your high school class whose parents weresooooo old that it was weird and creepy? That’s all of us now. Oops.

As I showed, 40-year-old women are less likely to have children now than they were when she was a kid. And when Roiphe writes of the “50-year-old mother in the kindergarten class [who] attracts a certain amount of catty interest and disapproval,” she should be aware that the disapproval – which I don’t doubt exists – is not about the increased frequency of older mothers, but about how people think about them.

I guess any of these stories could also have been illustrated with my own photo, from Taiwan, which I used to illustrate a post about low fertility rates — implying this presumed grandmother was happy because she at least has a grandchild. (You’re welcome to use the picture for that purpose, free clip-art searchers of the future, but please don’t describe it was a birth mother and her child.)

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Marketplace multigenerational

There are a handful of posts on here about multigenerational family arrangements, especially inspired by family responses to the recession. Maybe that inspired the public radio program Marketplace to call me for a quick conversation about the recent increase in families spanning more than two generations. You can listen here, or read the transcript below (with the “um”s removed).

Here’s one visualization of the trend:

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: We’re gonna get a glimpse at how home prices in big cities across the country are doing with the Case-Schiller Index that comes out in just a couple of minutes. For some American families home dwelling is taking a trip back to the future. New census data shows in this tough economy — and an even tougher housing market — the number of multi-generational households has surged. Those are homes where children, parents and grandparents — three generations or more — all live under one roof.

Let’s talk a bit about this new trend. Philip Cohen is professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina. He’s with us now from Chapel Hill. Good morning professor.

PHILIP COHEN: Good morning.

CHIOTAKIS: Why are more people of different generations living together, and how does this effect them all?

COHEN: Well, the first thing that happens is that people turn to those they expect to care for them, or people that have some moral obligation. And whether its young people looking up a generation or old people looking down a generation, the family is the first place that people have to turn.

CHIOTAKIS: Is this because of economic conditions? Is that particularly the reason why?

COHEN: We’ve seen for a long time that people tend to live in multi-generational households when they don’t have as much choice as they’d like. So it seems like Americans, when they can afford to, don’t do this. So when we see a strong uptick in multi-generational living, we have to expect that it’s economic. Although frankly, the numbers have been trending up since the middle of the decade.

CHIOTAKIS: How does this bode for the rest of the economy, though? Does this mean more sharing of groceries, and other toiletry items, less shopping, less spending?

COHEN: Well I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but it may be more efficient for families. They certainly — it may reduce the total number of households and increase economies of scale within families. I have seen at least one report that builders are getting more requests for so-called “in-law suites” in some areas. So if you who are taking it seriously, and you have some money to spend, then it certainly is another opportunity to spend some money.

CHIOTAKIS: Very quickly, sir, is this temporary, or are these permanent living situations?

COHEN: Well the long term decline in multi-generational living made us think that it would never turn around. The steep increase in the last few years has us wondering. I don’t know.

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Living with grandparents update (yikes edition)

The grandparent spike spikes on.

Last fall I learned that the number of children who live with at least one grandparent had spiked upward over the last half decade or so. The one-year update of that trend was dramatic enough to justify a yikes-edition update, even though grandparents’ day is still five months off.

Again, the non-poor and near-poor lead the upward trend, while the highest rates are among near-poor. Although there were upward movements in the years before 2008, for the present I think we should file this under recession studies.

(For more on grandparents providing care for children, see this Pew report from last fall.)

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Happy Grandparents Day (no need to send a card)

This year on Grandparents Day, more children might want to honor their grandparents, but they won’t need to mail a card to do it.

So far the recession has brought American families a possible stall in divorce rates and a drop in birth rates, as well as a rash of child abuse and other violence. Now there is more evidence that the recession is bringing families closer together — in this case physically — in the data on children’s living arrangements. The number of children who live with at least one grandparent has spiked upward.

The Census Bureau reports that 7 million children were living with a grandparent in 2009, or 9% of kids under 18. Among those, half (4.5 million) live in the grandparents’ home, rather than hosting a grandparent in their parents’ home. (The new Pew Center report making news provides more detail on care arrangements, but only includes Census data through 2008.)

Interestingly, as the figure shows, the jump in multigenerational living was greatest for the non-poor (those over 200% of the poverty line). In addition to fallout from job losses, one can imagine this includes families displaced by foreclosure and job loss, grandparents who can’t afford to move into retirement communities because they can’t sell their homes, and other complications of the real estate crash.

The children most likely to live with grandparents, however, are the near-poor — those between 100% and 200% of the poverty line. This might include a lot of would-be poor families in which the grandparents are employed, bringing the total family income over the poverty line.

My older research into multigenerational living produced compelling evidence that these arrangements are usually not a first choice in the U.S. these days — because the more money people have, the less likely they are to share housing. Still, the effect of all this could be more intergenerational solidarity and close relationships. But I wouldn’t assume that.

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AIDS and the missing middle

A new paper in the British Medical Journal shows how AIDS is ripping the middle generation out of family support systems in Africa. Analyzing 22 countries over 15 years, the researchers found that countries with higher AIDS mortality have more elderly people living alone or only with young children.

This relationship — which holds after other demographic factors are controlled — is consistent with another recent study, which also found more skip-generation households in AIDS-afflicted countries.

Although a recent issue of Research on Aging has attempted to expand the focus of AIDS research “from the infected to the affected,” including the elderly, children orphaned by the disease have so far received more attention than “AIDS parents,” even though most adults who die from AIDS are survived by at least one parent. And the hardest-hit countries have weak social support systems in which family care for the elderly is essential.

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