Peter K. Smith
University of London
Linda M. Drew
University of Southern California
Grandparenting it is an important part of the life cycle. In the United States, some three fourths of adults will become grandparents (Giarrusso, Silverstein, and Bengtson, 1996); the average age of becoming a grandparent is approximately 50 years for women and a couple of years older for men. Many people will remain grandparents for some 25 years, or approximately a third of their lifespan. A more exact calculation in the United States comes from a study by Rossi and Rossi (1990) of some 2,000 respondents in the Boston area; the mean generational gap was 28 years. With high death rates in the late 70s (especially men) and 80s (especially women), this means that children will typically grow up with both sets of grandparents, but lose perhaps grandfathers when they are in adolescence and grandmothers as young adults. The findings of Rossi and Rossi suggest that not so many adults have living grandparents—the proportion falls from 62% in the 20s to 27% by the 30s. Great-grandparenthood is correspondingly rare; typically, as adults go through their 50s, their parents die and their grandchildren are born.
The findings of Rossi and Rossi do “demythologize” the idea of common or extensive fourgeneration families; in their sample, only 1.3% of Bostonians have any living great-grandparents (whereas one in four have at least one living grandparent, and one in four have a grandchild). Equally, the figures confirm that grandparenting is a common experience. Rossi and Rossi describe the threegeneration family as modal; it can be considered normative today for children up to early adulthood to have grandparents and for people in their late 50s onwards to have grandchildren.
Terms such as grandparent, parent, child, and grandchild are relative; someone may be both a parent and a child, for example. Many researchers use generational labels such as G1, G2, and G3 to avoid this ambiguity. However, this device has its own difficulties, as, if G1 refers to a grandparental generation, then there is no appropriate label for any great-grandparents. In this chapter, we take grandchildren as the reference point and refer to their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.