Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Social and Demographic Contours of Contemporary Grandparenthood: Mapping Patterns in Canada and the United States

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

The Social and Demographic Contours of Contemporary Grandparenthood: Mapping Patterns in Canada and the United States

Article excerpt


Research in the area of grandparenthood has been steadily growing for over two decades. Cumulatively, this work suggests that grandparenthood is a contingent and complex process which is largely shaped and mediated by influences including, but by no means exclusive to, individual, familial, socio-historical, economic and demographic factors (Szinovacz, 1998a;1998c). To date, researchers have made significant steps toward understanding grandparenthood from a micro-perspective, elucidating for example, the meaning, roles, types, styles and activities of grandparents (e.g. Bengtson 1985; Cunningham-Burley, 1986; Johnson, 1985) and exploring dimensions of intergenerational contact, as well as factors influencing grandparent-grandchild relationships (e.g. Hodgson, 1992; Hunter & Taylor, 1998; Roberta & Stroes, 1992). Although few researchers would dismiss the significant import of large-scale social and demographic patterns in explicating this intergenerational tie, parallel efforts to understand population-based trends in present-day grandparenthood have generally not been made (Aldous, 1995). Concomitantly, of the few studies that examine these patterns drawing on nationally representative samples, data are derived from American populations (see for example, Szinovacz, 1998b; Uhlenberg & Kirby, 1998). As a result, we possess surprisingly little information on the demographic contours of grandparenthood in Canada and generally lack comparative analysis with other nations.

The purpose of this paper, therefore, is essentially twofold. The first aim is to establish the demographic patterns and social trends which characterize contemporary grandparenthood in Canada using nationally representative data from the 1990 and 1995 General Social Surveys of Canada. Patterns characterizing and influencing grandparenthood such as the prevalence of grandparenthood, multiple generation families, stepgrandparenthood and the availability of grandparents and grandchildren are examined. Analysis also focuses on rates of intergenerational cohabitation and surrogate parenting by grandparents, as well as the intersection of grandparenthood and other family and work-related roles. The second aim of the paper-where methodologically possible-is to provide a comparative analysis of Canadian and American trends, thereby placing findings within a North American context. Szinovacz's (1998b) recent comprehensive profile of American grandparents serves as a comparative base.1 First, however, I situate grandparenthood within a framework of contemporary social and demographic trends, beginning with a consideration of the family.


Grandparenthood, Family Structure, Generational Overlap and the Supply of Grandchildren

Canadian families are presently undergoing processes of transformation and redefinition, generally assuming more heterogeneity in size and structure (Rosenthal, 2000). Increasing life expectancy, decreasing fertility, changing gender roles, patterns of work and of marriage and divorce, all join to influence family structure (Beaujot, 2000; Milan, 2000) and consequently, grandparenthood. Accordingly, family structure impinges on the experience of grandparenthood defining not only if, who and when, but also under what circumstances individuals enter into grandparent-grandchild relationships.

In order to better comprehend the emerging diversity characterizing present-day families, researchers have conceptualized various multi-generational family types including: "beanpole"; "age condensed"; "age gapped"; "truncated"; and "step" or "reconstituted" families (Bengtson, Rosenthal & Burton, 1990; George & Gold, 1991). Each family type holds unique implications for grandparenthood. The "beanpole" family is characterized by "verticalization" or an increase in the number of generations and a decrease in the number of members (Bengtson, Rosenthal & Burton, 1990). …

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