16 December 2022

Newly retired Boomers can help pick up the childcare slack


Around 250,000 sprightly baby boomers have decided they’ve had enough of work and, not unreasonably, have decided to cash in generous pension schemes with the prospect of 30-40 years of leisure ahead of them.

The Bank of England is worried about the number of older people checking out of the workplace, but maybe they have got this all the wrong way round. By coincidence, figures crunched by my colleagues at Civitas reveal there are about 250,000 mums, with primary school-age children, sitting at home but wanting to work if the right childcare was on offer.

Almost every week a group of MPs or some lobby group will publish a report on Britain’s childcare crisis. The script hardly needs rehearsing, our childcare costs are just about the highest in the Western world and our childcare sector is teetering on the edge of collapse.

Instead of pushing the early retired back into work, perhaps we could expect this new generation of well-off and time-rich grandparents to put in a few shifts, picking up and dropping of grandchildren at the school gates.  

According a recent poll, almost one in three retirees think it is ‘unfair’ to expect them to take on childcare duties. In the same poll, over half of early retirees were indifferent or relaxed about their financial future having kicked the work habit. Their frazzled children might take a different view, with the number of families with two full-time working parents hitting more than 50% for the first time ever in 2021.

For this new generation of grandparents, the world has changed dramatically since they had their own children, with the number of stay-at-home mums falling to only about one in eight mothers with primary school aged children. When the Boomer generation had children, staying at home was the norm as men went out to work. Times have changed and the pressures on family life have increased dramatically. 

Another poll conducted before the pandemic hit found only a quarter of grandparents helped out with any childcare during the working week, with most childcare activities reserved for the weekend or fun stuff outside of the drudgery of simply making family life work.

Childcare isn’t just about babies, something often overlooked by the somewhat fanatical ‘first 1001’ days crowd; children will need dropping off and picking up from school for many years before they are old enough to make their own way. Britain’s newly minted retired workforce could be encouraged to help out with everyday childcare, and we could certainly expect more than the one in five who say they help with the school run.

Several Westminster think tanks are toying with the idea of handing out childcare cash directly to parents, and that idea could easily be extended to grandparents. This might present a helpful workaround for many families, and ministers are apparently looking closely at these proposals.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that when it comes to babies, mums are keen to spend much more time with their young children and a lot less time at work, but as their children get older, about half of those who said they want to spend more time at home instead begin to look for greater balance. This is where our new generation of early retired grandparents could easily step in.

The think-tank Onward recently found that almost 60% of parents think grandparents should be given financial support to look after their grandchildren. They might be on to something.

Ten years ago, ministers introduced a tax break for grandparents stepping in to do a few hours of childcare. It is a little known quirk of the tax system that has largely gone unnoticed. This tax break is only open to grandparents who are still working, little use to our cohort of newly retired baby boomers. Ministers might want to look at how the scheme could nudge this group to share the burden of school runs.

While most grandparents probably wouldn’t expect compensation for looking after their own grandchildren, we can do better than only a quarter regularly dropping off and picking up children from school.

As our society gets much older and a lucky generation cash in generous pension schemes at a comparatively young age, we should look again at the role of grandparents. Not all families will have them living close to home, but we overlook a vital piece of the childcare system by not expecting more of the baby boomers enjoying the first few years of retired bliss as their children work longer hours than any generation before them. 

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Frank Young is editorial director at Civitas.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.