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What it’s like to be a young grandparent

Until the late Sixties, it was perfectly normal to have children in your early twenties, whatever your social class

May 14, 2014 | By:

Contrary to our childhood image of 'grandma', the average age of first-time grandparents in the UK today is 47. Tim Willis takes a look at the statistics and the reasons behind them

Grandparents at 50_high50_620 Corbis Perceptions, statistics – they’re funny old things, aren’t they? Last month, when we heard that a couple with the combined age of 25 had become Britain’s youngest parents – and that the baby’s new maternal grandmother was only 24 – no doubt we shook our heads and feared the end of civilisation.

Why? Because, though we knew nothing about the children in question, we assumed they lived on Chav Street, where the feckless poor breed without considering the implications for themselves, their offspring or the wider society. Just look, we said, at what this world is coming to.

Except it isn’t. The number of under-age parents in Britain today is falling, mainly and regrettably through abortions, though recession, contraception and education may be playing a part.

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Consequently, as you might expect, the average age of first-time parents across the UK is also rising, continuing a trend that began in the late Sixties. And the inevitable result is that the average age of grandparents is on the up, too.

Ah, but what is the current average age of first-time grandparents? Well, it turns out that it’s around 47. Yes, 47. And why so young? (Or so seemingly young, since we 50-plusses now feel at the peak of our powers.)

The reason is that, until the late Sixties, it was perfectly normal to have children in your early twenties, whatever your social class. So, say you were born in 1960 and first became a parent in 1985, your offspring would today be 29 – which happens to be the current national average for first-time motherhood.

If you find that surprising, then you’ve probably bought into the media myth of ‘delayed motherhood’, as practiced by an elite of successful, wealthy women.

In fact, for every British mother who gives birth over the age of 40, there are 28 under 40. And considering that many of the older group will be on at least their second or third child, it puts into perspective how rare such older first-timers as Emma Thompson and Helen Fielding really are.

Glamorous grannies

This fact was driven home to me when, for the purposes of research, I posted a request on my Facebook page.

I asked, “Does anyone know anybody who’s already a grandparent in their fifties and wouldn’t mind talking to me about it?”

The results wouldn’t be scientific. I couldn’t conduct a nationwide poll – and besides, we 50-plusses are such a disparate bunch that almost any generalisation would be vacuous. But I could at least address my own hopes and fears.

In less than a day, I had several solid leads, including Andie, 56 and grandmother of one male toddler by her single-mum daughter and another by her married son; and Paola, 50, whose married son has a three-year-old boy (with a baby on the way) and whose married daughter has a year-old girl.

Of course, their essential message is that, whatever the challenges, love conquers all. One might think the state of grandparenthood hadn’t really changed in centuries when you add to that some age-old truths, such as, “You get the best of them and can give them back at night”; “Once you’ve raised a child, you feel so much less anxious about helping to do it again”; “They actually give you more energy”.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re from a vast extended network of relationships, like the married Paola, whose family have always sprogged early and often; or a tight little unit like Andie, who had her first child in her mid-twenties and divorced when her kids had grown up.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a globetrotting clan like Andie’s, or all near-neighbours like Paola’s. These are external factors.

However, it does appear that internal factors – how people feel about grandparents in their fifties, and indeed about being them – have changed significantly.

As Paola says, “In previous generations, when people reached this stage, they kind of expected themselves to be old, so they acted that way. It was a self-image thing.

“But that self-fulfilling prophecy doesn’t seem relevant any more.”

As readers will agree, “I’m not old, I don’t feel old and I don’t act old.”

Generational confusion

Naturally, there are hitches. Andie’s dating pool has probably shrunk, because it’s a lot to ask a compatible male to cast himself in the role of escort to a woman who has an urge to care for infant flesh and blood. “And if I’d been going steady, then out of respect for any partner, there would have been restrictions of my availability.”

For Paola, the experience has made her consider her legacy more: “Not so much material things as ensuring that the family is set on the right path, with the right tools.”

Both agree that the love between the modern grandma and g-child is “pure” and “unspeakable” in a way that no other sort is.

Great fun, too. Not just because a still-playful grannie is a great thing for any kid to have, but because of the generational confusion we all encounter nowadays.

Just as older fathers blush when asked if the contents of their strollers are their grandchildren, so modern grandmas glow when they are mistaken as the older mums of whom we are seeing a little more, and give themselves a pat on the back when confronted by the latter.

“I’ve got a friend who’s one year older than me and trying for her first baby,” says Paola. “If she has it this year, and even if her child has its own baby at 22, she still won’t be a grandma until she’s 74 – and that’s the age of my mother!”

Slowly but surely, of course, this age gap will become more the norm. But by then, no doubt, 70 will be the new 50 (which is already the new teenage). So what conclusions can we draw?

Without meaningful statistics, all we can say at a macro-level is that that society is in a fascinating and accelerating state of flux, in which some eternal values seem to persist.

And at the micro, personal, level? Only that I’m feeling more relaxed about the prospect of my daughter being a mum by the time I’m in my early sixties.

I’m just hoping her partner’s mother will be on hand for the hard work.