Apparently, Spanish grandparents are going on strike this week. It’s part of a general strike against cuts so possibly not many people will be requiring grandparents to looking after their kids, but it is an interesting phenomenon in itself. Part of the problem is because of Spanish working hours – the Spanish working day still tends to go on a bit longer than that of other European countries because of the long lunch hours in the middle – and part of it is due to the lack of flexible working opportunities for parents. However, the main issue, and one which has echoes in the UK, is the cost of childcare.
In a recession, everyone is trying to save money where they can and childcare is one of the major drains on resources. In many cases, full-time childcare costs as much as a person’s weekly earnings, making it almost pointless for them to work. Tax credits were supposed to help here and I am sure they have, but the system is so complicated that I, for one, have given up on it. There are childcare vouchers, but not all employers provide them. And then there are grandparents.
There is an argument that caring for grandchildren keeps grandparents healthy and my mum for one seems very happy to help out, but where is the line between using their help and abusing it? It’s a very fine one. Moreover, as more parents delay having children till their 30s or 40s the knock-on effect is that grandparents are getting older and less able to care for their children’s offspring. Plus they may require care themselves…
The great thing about grandparents, though, is that they are very flexible. They can cope if a child is ill [although, if they are elderly, should they be exposed to a constant tide of infections?] in a way that a nursery or a childminder, with other kids, can’t. They can be around if you have a one-off emergency or a breakfast meeting. Many people now work flexibly, in part to get round childcare costs and new forms of technology make this some form of solution to childcare emergencies. However, they still need childcare and, in my experience, the childcare available does not meet the levels of flexibility that are becoming available at work. I am talking, for instance, about providing school days to cut costs – if people are already working flexibly around school-aged kids why should they have to pay full-time costs for a baby or toddler sibling? This is not to mention emergency back-up care or more flexibility around hours. I know there are some childcare providers which can offer flexibility, usually at a price, and childminders, of course, do it all the time if you have a good relationship. But childminders are badly paid and so have to mix and match the children they care for to keep to tight ratios and to make the whole thing pay.
So, once again, it all comes down to money. This is not some trivial issue. Most employees in the UK will have children at some point in their lives. Working mums will only become a growing phenomenon due to economic [both personal and national] reasons. We need to sort out how best to finance it.