July 12, 2013 6:16 pm

Alice Fishburn: What my grandfather taught me

The things your grandparents have seen and done are in your blood and a million miles from your own experience
An illustration of a boy and his grandfather©Luis Grañena

Last week my grandfather died. He left many things behind: a wife, six children, 14 grandchildren and a huge hole. But in the spirit of not knowing what you’ve got till it’s gone, he also left me with a new awareness: grandparents are everywhere. The elderly get some of the worst press around – castigated as a drain on resources, with a generation of creaky-hipped baby boomers emerging from the wings to make things even more disastrous. But where it counts, grandparents are actually running the show.

Indeed, they are not only running things but taking them over. A MetLife analysis of census data estimates that there are now 25 million more grandparents in the United States than there were in 1980 – some 65 million strong, their number is growing at more than twice the US overall population growth rate. The UK now has around 14 million of them. That’s a powerful presence, not to mention political lobby. And as longevity increases, multigenerational families are becoming more common. It used to be rare to have a great-grandmother still doing the rounds. Now they’re popping up everywhere.

Exhibit A: the Queen. Quite aside from the imminent acquisition of a new scion in Baby Cambridge Jr, she has soared up the popularity charts since recasting herself in the role of national grandmother: pastel-clad, never missing a family occasion no matter how many Elton John performances she has to sit through. Hillary Clinton has also recognised the sway of the grandparent demographic. She may not be prepared to speak out about 2016 but she is firmly on the record about her grandmotherly aspirations. In one interview she stated there was “no pressure” on Chelsea, before describing her hypothetical grandmothering style with what any daughter would recognise as quite a high-pressure statement: “Oh, my gosh, I’ll take the child, I’ll do whatever you need to get done.”

She won’t be the only one. Grandparents are the not-so-secret weapon of childcare. A recent report for Grandparents Plus by the Institute of Gerontology at King’s showed that over 40 per cent of grandparents in 11 European countries provide childcare. In Britain, that soars to 63 per cent for those with a grandchild under 16. Nor are they just a reliable backstop for juggling parents. They are also the ones who step in when things get tough. In the US, the Pew Research Center suggests that since the recession started, there has been a sharp increase in the number of children raised by a grandparent.

I benefited from 31 glorious years of hands-on grandfathering and if that’s not enough to absorb a few lessons, then, frankly, I’m the one to blame. My grandfather is the one who taught me that the answer to pretty much any question can be found in a book. It was from him that I learnt how to write the name of whoever gave you the wine on the bottle so you can thank them later (neatly distilling two of his great philosophies – manners matter above all and let the good wines flow). More and more of us will thrive from such prolonged exposure as our grandparents live longer. Today they are more likely to be working, active and educated than before.

They also have more cash at their disposal: a market that canny companies have not been shy to cash in on. But it is their presence that beats toys, clothes and other bits of plastic. An Oxford university study of teenagers (never the most effusive group) funded by the Economic and Social Research Council shows that children with higher grandparental involvement in their lives have fewer emotional and behavioural problems. They are our cheerleaders, another line of defence in times of difficulty. They weigh in on the really important things. My grandfather again: “Be fair. Be fair. Be fair. Even when life isn’t.”

A new study comes to the unsurprising conclusion that grandparents affect your social standing. More importantly, they give you a sense of your own history. The things they have seen and done are both in your blood and a million miles from your own experience, whether setting off for the front lines or experiencing a new nirvana at Woodstock. At an age when I was still messing around in graduate school, my grandfather, a young colonial officer, was dealing with a small pirate problem in Malaysia. When he used Morse code to appeal to his superiors some 200 miles away, the following came back: “Sort it out yourself.”

Our society is lucky that a swelling generation of grandparents stand ready to sort it out for those who come after them. More children will learn that your ears never stop growing. That however much of a city slicker you fancy yourself to be, you will be embarrassed if you can’t tell the difference between an oak and a beech, a hyacinth and a crocus. (If you can do it in Latin, so much the better.) That tolerance counts above all else. Tolerance and family. Tolerance of family most of all. And, ultimately, that you can never have long enough with your grandparents.

alice.fishburn@ft.com

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