It’s no secret that we all seem to gather more and more caring responsibilities as we go along. Nor is it any great secret that women tend to accumulate more caring responsibilities than men. Grandparents Plus and others have rightly highlighted the growing importance of grandparents caring for children as the cost of formal childcare spirals out of reach for many families. When I recently surveyed union members aged 50 +about juggling caring responsibilities and work, I was expecting a high proportion of respondents to cite grandparenting duties as one of the main caring responsibilities. Indeed, some 60% of those questioned reported that they look after a family member or friend as well as going to work. Perhaps unsurprisingly the majority of those who had caring responsibilities (50%) were caring for a parent. What surprised me more was that the next largest group being cared for by respondents was children, rather than grandchildren. Nearly 40% of those who responded were caring for a child. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the age at which parents are starting a family has been rising steadily since the 60s. Changes in cultural norms, how we work and ever improving fertility treatments have all led to increasing numbers of people delaying having their first child until later in life.

The table below shows how births by age of the mother have changed over recent decades.

Live births by age group of mother, 1938–2011

England and Wales

Live births by age group of mother, 1938–2011


When I first asked for case studies for the Age Immaterial project and I was looking for examples of grandparents juggling caring responsibilities and work, I recall receiving an email from a woman who was 50 and had given birth in her late 40s so was actually dealing with the joys and stresses of parenting a young child in her 50s. She felt that her caring responsibilities were often overlooked at work as women of her age were expected to have got the childrearing years out of the way by then.

It’s not just that parents are starting families later in life, employers and policy makers also need to understand that parenting doesn’t stop when kids start school. While there has been much debate in recent years about childcare for pre-school children, there has been little debate about childcare for older school children. Parents of secondary school children may well have concerns about leaving their kids alone for long periods of time after school – particularly if they work shifts or unsocial hours or if they live in a rural area with little local transport and their children have a long journey home alone. As older kids approach their GCSEs and other critical points in their education, many parents will want to be involved and will want to be home at a reasonable time to help with homework and revision. The needs of parents of older children must also feature in policy discussions about so called “wraparound care” and when employers are considering requests for flexible working.

The Age Immaterial survey just highlights the need for employers to recognise that anyone in the workplace may have caring responsibilities at any time and lazy stereotypes about what age women are likely need more flexibility in their careers are outdated and unhelpful.


Posted on November 6th, 2013 by Scarlet Harris filed under: Blog