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What do we know about grandparents? Insights from current quantitative data and identification of future data needs

Abstract

Against the background of a ‘new wave’ of empirical studies investigating various aspects of grandparenthood across a broad range of regional contexts, this article aims to take stock of what has been achieved so far and which lessons we can learn from this for the future. Our focus is on the measurement of grandparenthood and grandparenting in quantitative social surveys and the implications this has for the substantive questions we can ask and the answers we can get out of such data. For several broader questions—who is a grandparent and when does this transition happen; what does it mean to be a grandparent; and what are the implications of grandparenthood for families?—we review previous questionnaire items from a variety of surveys as well as studies in which they were used. We identify relevant issues related to these questions which cannot be adequately addressed with currently available data, but should be considered in new or ongoing survey projects. The answers provided by recent studies as well as the many still open questions identified here indicate excellent prospects for scholarship on grandparents in the years to come.

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Notes

  1. It is beyond the scope of our review to cover in detail all surveys containing (some) information on grandparents, and our selection of examples is, inevitably, to some extent arbitrary. Importantly, our review of substantive research in not limited to HRS-type surveys, but includes studies based on, for example, the Generations and Gender Surveys (GGS), the German Ageing Survey DEAS), or the Longitudinal Ageing Study Amsterdam (LASA).

  2. This distinction is important to empirically test, for example, social and biological (i.e. evolutionary) theories of grandparental investment decisions (e.g. Coall et al. 2014).

  3. Note that ELSA puts together grandchildren and/or great-grandchildren, and there is no way to distinguish them.

  4. Coall et al. (2014), for example, claim to be able to identify grandparents’ (G1) and grandchildren’s (G3) biological relatedness in SHARE (Wave 1) using information on whether the G1–G2 relationship is a biological one. If, however, G1–G2 are biologically related and G2–G3 have a steprelation, there is no biological relation between G1 and G3. The authors acknowledge this as a limitation, but it, nonetheless, remains a major shortcoming of their analysis (and the data they use).

  5. Conversely, one might ask, what the significance of being a grandchild is, and how this role is perceived by grandchildren and grandparents (e.g. Even-Zohar and Sharlin 2009).

  6. See Fruhauf et al. (2006) for a study of grandchildren caring for their grandparents.

  7. Another strand of literature, which we do not discuss here in greater detail, investigates the role of grandparents in the middle-generation’s fertility (e.g. Aassve et al. 2012b; Thomése and Liefbroer 2013).

  8. Note that birth cohort studies, such as the Millennium Cohort Study in the UK, are particularly well suited to investigate the implications of grandparenting for grandchildren (e.g. Del Boca et al. 2017), but that these studies may also provide important information on the grandparents themselves (see Hansen and Joshi 2007).

  9. A related strand of recent research addresses the effects of parental divorce (and children’s subsequent residence arrangements) on grandchildren’s contact with grandparents (see Jappens and van Bavel 2016; Westphal et al. 2015).

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Correspondence to Karsten Hank.

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Hank, K., Cavrini, G., Di Gessa, G. et al. What do we know about grandparents? Insights from current quantitative data and identification of future data needs. Eur J Ageing 15, 225–235 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10433-018-0468-1

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Keywords

  • Grandparenthood
  • Grandparenting
  • Quantitative data