Whenever I see a toddler in China, the odds of seeing them in company of one of their grandparents are super high – around 80%. I became curious and started digging into this, trying to understand both the factors and the implications of this.
First of all, it’s the early retirement age (60 for men, and even younger for women), which makes grandparents more available time-wise. Second, it’s the pull of traditional culture in China where people have a long history of living with their elders and having grandparents participate in childrearing.
To help the older generation cope with raising small children, “grandparent schools” have popped up all over China. Grandparents study everything from “how to stand up to your whining grandchild” to understanding popular Internet technology. At parenting schools in Guangzhou and Shanghai, 80 percent of the pupils aren’t parents at all, they’re grandparents.
But it seems to me that the biggest factor driving this is the need for parents to pursue work – either because of financial needs, or simply to build a career.
According to estimates, there are currently 60 million children “left behind” by their parents – children who live with their grandparents and other relatives in rural areas while their parents go off to more affluent cities to work (there is a really good drama/documentary on this called “Last Train Home” https://youtu.be/cKAVPfI_8MU).
Yet there is also parents for whom leaving behind their children with the grandparents is an opportunity to increasingly focus on their professional lives. I myself have numerous friends who live and work abroad while the children are back in China with the grandparents.
While I was shocked at first, over time I learned to put it into a larger cultural context. And if you look at the gender distribution numbers in China, you can’t help but wonder how much the support of the grandparents helps for career progression: 51 percent of senior management positions are held by women, half of the world's female self-made billionaires are from China, and women in China contribute half of the household income.