The grandparents whose children can’t afford to let them retire

Recession and long working hours mean many pensioners play a key role in keeping families together

Nacho Meneses
Erundina Baamonde with her two-year-old grandson, Martín.
Erundina Baamonde with her two-year-old grandson, Martín.

Erundina Baamonde is a 69-year-old retired cleaner from Galicia who has lived in the Madrid suburb of Alcorcón since 1977. With the help of her husband, she looks after her two grandchildren while their parents, Cristina and Javier, are at work. Monday to Friday she gives Elena, 13, her lunch before she returns to school for afternoon classes and then takes care of two-year-old Martín from 4pm, the time he leaves nursery until his parents return home from work at 9pm.

“When Elena was little she also had her afternoon meal with us but now that she’s older, she goes home and waits for her parents,” Erundina explains. “With Martín, his parents bring him here from the nursery and I give him something to eat; he plays all afternoon, we go to the park, I give him his supper…”

A survey by Spain’s Ministry of Health in 2010 revealed that grandparents were often on duty for up to seven hours a day

Erundina insists she’s happy to help out. “I’m still fit,” she says. “Why wouldn’t I help? Who else are they going to find to look after the little one in the evening?”

Thanks to the crisis and Spain’s overly long working hours, Erundina’s is a story being played out across the country. According to a study by the Pfizer Foundation, 59% of grandparents are involved in the care of their grandchildren, whether it’s picking them up from nursery or school, taking them to the doctor, or giving them lunch.

“No one is forcing me to do this,” says Erundina. “My husband and I offered. It’s true that we’ve had to forego certain things. If the Imserso [Spain’s state-run social services for the retired] has organized a trip, we can’t always go on the dates we want, but we can go another time. And in summer, we almost always spend two months in Galicia, so it’s not like we’ve had to give up anything important.”

On the positive side, the Association of grandparents in Spain (ABUESPA) points out that grandparents’ involvement in family life ensures that traditional values survive. “A sense of humor, strength of spirit, loyalty, generosity and many other values never go out of fashion,” says an ABUESPA spokesperson. “They’re still around and they’re something we can pass on.”

But a survey by Spain’s Ministry of Health in 2010 revealed that grandparents were often on duty for up to seven hours a day. And though in many cases they’re happy to help out, in some instances the sheer volume of work triggers stress or depression, resulting in the so-called grandparent slave syndrome. And for fear of ruining their relationship with their children, they’re afraid to complain.

The Association of grandparents in Spain (ABUESPA) points out that grandparents’ involvement in family life ensures that traditional values survive

Sara Berbel, a doctor in social psychology and director of the Empowerment Hub, an organization that helps people reorient their careers, believes that Spain’s crisis has a lot to answer for, and that goes beyond returning grandparents to a parenting role. “The crisis has accentuated the division of labor between the sexes,” she says. “As family incomes have shrunk, a lot of women have returned to being housewives and looking after the children or the elderly, who were previously cared for in nurseries or homes.”

Ana Eva Alameda, founder of Conciliatecuidando.es, adds that the measures Spain took in 2007 toward a better work-life balance have dwindled to zero after a decade of recession. “Women have had to assume the responsibility of domestic care because the state has pulled out, which is obviously detrimental to the economy,” she says. “At the same time, the crisis has meant greater social inequality because outside care is now only available to those on higher incomes, giving the wealthy a better chance of balancing their work and family lives. The rest of society has to fall back on family members. Work-life balance has become a luxury.”

Little help from employers or the state

Although there is now a stack of evidence proving that a better work-life balance increases productivity, prompting politicians across the spectrum to start addressing the issue, few companies are prepared to do much to help, according to Berbel.

Consequently, many women balk at taking advantage of existing work-life policies for fear of harming their careers. Meanwhile, according to Pfizer, 83% of men admit that becoming a parent has scarcely affected their work, and only 12% of men surveyed had rejected a job offer or promotion on account of having children, a figure that rose to 39% among women.

“In Spanish companies it’s common to assume that more hours means more work,” says Berbel. “Your presence is what matters, not getting the job done. In other European countries, questions are asked when someone doesn’t finish their work in the allotted time. There is also the assumption here that women will tend to domestic matters, hence work-life measures are generally aimed at them.”

Where does Spain rank in Europe’s work-life league?

Spanish timetables “are longer and less flexible than in more advanced countries,” adds Berbel. “We work 300 hours more a year than Germany and 200 hours more than Denmark or the Netherlands, but our productivity trails. At the same time, we have fewer care services, which affects how many women can enter the labor market.”

Countries such as Iceland, Sweden and Norway, which have non-transferable paternity leave, insist on shared parental responsibility for family care. In Spain, better work-life policies might encourage fathers to step up to the plate and take the pressure off their parents. “We’re talking about a generation of pensioners who are crucial to keeping their children afloat,” says Alameda, noting that 33% of them are helping their children financially as well. “They are performing a vital role for our economy and society but it’s unpaid, which means it has a price. What will happen in the future to these old people? If we keep ignoring the need for government care facilities but their children need to keep working, how are we ever going to achieve a balance? It’s not a tenable situation.”

In Spain, where the fallout from the crisis will be felt for many years to come, an effective work-life policy is an obvious solution for family welfare. However, as Sara Berbel points out, the change has to be organic and come from within society, producing a demand and, finally, a response from employers. It is the only way equality between the sexes will be addressed and grandparents will be allowed to enjoy their retirement on their own terms.

 English version by Heather Galloway.

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