Babies: What a miracle they are! They fit in small spaces, they look fabulous in cardigans, and sometimes couples have them as a last-ditch effort to save failing relationships. Sometimes, it even works! It turns out babies might have even more problem-solving properties than we once imagined. Since the recession, intergenerational mudslinging has become a favorite pastime of Millennials and Baby Boomers eager to blame each other for the country’s economic woes. Millennials are selfishly not having babies or buying houses, according to their detractors, while Boomer parents are not retiring from high-paying jobs that would create room for Millennials on the executive ladder that would make it financially feasible to do either. With their investments gutted by the recession and their confidence shaken by it, Boomers have had little incentive to leave their jobs. But where golf and snooze buttons have failed, a hearty helping of grandbabies might serve as the perfect bait to lure these aging Americans into retirement and give the economy the boost it needs to keep Boomers afloat in their golden years.
Babies fit in small spaces, they look fabulous in cardigans, and sometimes couples have them as a last-ditch effort to save failing relationships. Sometimes, it even works!
Research on generational differences in the workplace show that Baby Boomers show higher levels of work centrality, whereby “one identifies with one’s work role and views work as an important aspect of one’s life.” With their jobs as identity markers, it is understandable that they don’t want to leave them behind. But two recent studies of unpaid childcare provide an opportunity for Boomers to look at work in a different light. An analysis of the American Time Use Survey published in Population Development and Review in June found that, while women in their 30s did the largest portion of childcare, they were closely followed by women in their 50s or older. A survey of British grandparents found that they performed an average of 600 hours of childcare-related labor during summer vacations with their grandchildren, which would amount to a salary of £22,856 if the labor were paid. But there aren’t many Baby Boomer grandparents, as Millennials aren’t having kids: 2013 saw the United States birth rate at an all-time low according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the author of the study using the American Time Use data suggested that flexible workplace policies and tax breaks could be used to create more opportunities for people to keep working while having kids, it is worth considering how aging Baby Boomers could be incentivized to exit the workforce by the prospect of becoming professional caregivers, either for their own children’s kids or for other Millennials’s children, and how Millennials, should this happen, could be incentivized to get to baby-making.
It sounds ridiculous at first: Every day, a Millennial stridently declares in a new article that they don’t want kids, and Boomers identify far too much with a very narrowly defined concept of what constitutes work to give it up to be caregivers again. But despite these low birth rates and the growing acceptance of the decision to not have kids, young Americans do want children and actually want more of them than their predecessors. A 2013 Gallup poll found that young Americans (ages 18 to 29) saw 2.7 children per household as ideal as opposed to their counterparts over 65, who saw 2.5 as ideal. Meanwhile, Boomers are draining their 401(K)s to support their Millennial children, whose earnings still haven’t even approached their parents’ incomes, as reported in the Wall Street Journal in June. This spells trouble for Boomers (and everyone) when we won’t have the population necessary for keeping things like Social Security and Medicare afloat.
All of this is not a suggestion that we bully our Boomer parents into leaving their jobs so that we can then take advantage of them for their babysitting services under the threat of them having no Medicare in the future. Besides, it is not as if my father could just retire and hand over his job and its attendant benefits to me so I’d have the income I needed to have the children I want. The economic reality is much more complicated. “The main culprit is not older people staying in their jobs too long,” says Courtney Coile, a professor of economics at Wellesley College. “Millennials are far more impacted by the recession and never fully getting going than they are by older people keeping their jobs.”
When I was a small child, I thought that people in their 60s were only qualified for yelling at teenagers and crypt-keeping.
But we are contending with the fact that older Americans are healthier than they used to be and that they identify strongly with work. When I was a small child, I thought that people in their 60s were only qualified for yelling at teenagers and crypt-keeping. But seeing my own parents in their mid-60s and more active and healthy than ever, I realize that expecting them to retire without something to do is ridiculous. “We call these bridge-jobs: People have a career job and then they use this bridge job that has lower wages and lower responsibilities and maybe more flexibility to ease their way into retirement,” Coile explains of the common practice of taking a job between a primary career and complete retirement. If we were more able as a culture to see the labor of caregiving as legitimate and worthy, it would be less of a grand and ridiculous ask that Boomers take jobs caring for Millennials’ kids, whose taxes will support them when their social benefits needs will be most profound.
Just as having a baby won’t miraculously save a marriage, Boomers becoming babysitters won’t heal all of the wounds that the recession has inflicted on retirement accounts, incomes, and birth rates. But if we want to create opportunities for younger people, then identifying intergenerational caregiving as a laudable form of work for older people to perform as they’re able might be one part of the solution. We should take advantage of that vitality and energy: The idle grandparents of yesteryear are not who Boomers have to be for their grandchildren. Though I won’t protest if any of them insist on knitting my baby a cardigan.
The Science of Relationships examines the sexual, romantic, and platonic connections that we all share.