One of the effects of global wrinkling is that great-grandparents are no longer a rarity. England’s new Prince George has a set, as do my grandkids. It’s damn cute to see four-year-old Penelope try and wrestle the iPhone out of her GG’s grip. (That’s pronounced Gigi, preferably with a French accent, and my money’s on the 90-year-old.)
Not everyone’s all sentimental about this trend. Last month British planning minister Nick Bowles blamed the increase in four-generation families for the country’s housing crisis. “It used to be rare to have a great-grandparent or great-grandchild in a family,” said Boles. “It is now common because people are living longer, and they do not all want to live in the same house.” Hey, at least it’s not all those immigrants! And while it’s true that many olders hang on to houses that are “too big for them,” one big reason is the dearth of non-grim, decently priced alternatives.
As Yvonne Roberts points out in a nuanced piece in the Guardian, housing decisions are easier for people like members of the royal family with several palaces to choose from. She described an emerging “beanpole family,” stretched vertically because of longer lives and “shaped by couples having fewer children – which means fewer siblings, aunts and cousins – but related to more living generations, with all the joys and complications that may bring.” Decision-making is complicated. Moving in together is often a function of economic necessity. The sandwich generation becomes what Roberts dubs “the club sandwich generation”: grandparents who look after grandchildren, help their own offspring, and tend to nonagenarian parents and step-parents.
The benefits, too, are immense. Support—both giving and receiving and both tangible and emotional—benefits both grandparents and adult grandchildren. (Tangible support includes everything from offering childcare or a ride to the store to lending a car or a sympathetic ear.) Children and grandparents are natural allies. (Roberts quotes George Bernard Shaw in this context: “If you can’t get rid of a family skeleton, you might as well make it dance.”) It offers community, a connection to shared history, and the companionship of those we love. Not least, it’s an antidote to ageism. “We live in a time in which youth is revered, wisdom undervalued and the process of ageing feared,” writes Roberts. “However, the strong and healthy multi-generational family—and it does exist—may, as it becomes more common, end up acting as a corrective.”