How waiting to have kids later in life could wipe out the very notion of grandparents

If you believe the headlines, millennials are a threat unlike anything this planet has seen, or at least since the 10-kilometre wide asteroid that took out the dinosaurs approximately 65 million years ago.

The under-35 generation is a plague, taking out beloved staples like home cooking, bars of soap, cereal, cable television, the wine cork, golf, push-up bras, landlines and even paper napkins. Their appetite for destruction seems endless, and now they have a new target in their sights: grandparents.

Yes, poor grandma and grandpa may soon be rendered extinct by what some call the most selfish, self-centred generation yet. Time-honoured staples like nonna’s pasta sauce, phrases like “back in my day” and grandma’s secret ingredient will cease to exist. More importantly, many kids in the near future may grow up without a historically important part of the family unit.

Millennials are waiting longer and longer to hit so-called “adult” milestones like getting married, buying a home and having children. The median age for a first marriage is now 27 for women and 29 for men, an increase from 20 for women and 23 for men in 1960. It won’t be unusual for many millennials to remain unmarried through age 40 – something that was considered highly unusual in generations past and earned one the honour of flattering titles like spinster. The Pew Research Center predicts that 25 per cent of Gen Y will never marry.

"Great-grandparents have already largely gone extinct, and grandma and grandpa may very well be next"

While marriage is not a prerequisite for having children, many people still wait until they have a legally-sanctioned family unit to take the big leap into parenthood. Later marriage thus means later childbirth. Baby Boomer women tended to have their first child before the age of 30, and often did so earlier in their 20s. The birthrate of women over 40 has doubled since 1990. The average age of American women having their first child hit a record high in 2013.

This delay in procreation means that, inevitably, grandparents will also be much older in the future – assuming they’re still alive at all. Great-grandparents have already largely gone extinct, and grandma and grandpa may very well be next.

While the implications of a world without cable television and paper napkins may be minimal, there are real ramifications to a changing family dynamic that threatens to push grandparents out. The grandchild-grandparent connection plays a significant role psychologically and practically. In many families, especially those who can’t afford skyrocketing daycare or nanny costs, grandparents are necessary to keep childcare costs manageable. Sometimes, that means more than picking up kids from school or watching the kids on date night.

According to Statistics Canada, a growing number of grandparents live with their grandchildren and help foot the bills. Some have stepped in as de facto parents. In 2011, 600,000 grandparents shared homes with their grandchildren and 12 per cent of those (or about 75,000) have no middle-aged person in the home, essentially raising their grandchildren and keeping them out of foster care. In the U.S., a staggering 2.5 million grandparents have taken on the role of primary parent.

Grandparents are especially important in indigenous homes and the homes of recent immigrants to Canada. For instance, 44 per cent of grandparents from South Asia who speak Punjabi at home live with grandchildren. Removing grandparents from the equation would be a large financial strain for many families – perhaps even enough to make them think twice about having more children or force both parents to remain in the workforce.

"Losing nonna’s secret sauce won’t only be disastrous for our taste buds, but also a cultural loss"

Beyond household budgets, grandparents are psychological and emotional safety nets. Currently, 58 per cent of grandparents in the U.S. reported speaking with their grandchildren at least once per week. They’re a source of support, comfort and a conduit for passing down long-held traditions and values. A famous Italian proverb advises, “If nothing is going well, call your grandmother.”

According to Arthur Kornhaber, M.D. and president of the Foundation for Grandparenting, grandma and grandpa aren’t just another set of parents. Since they aren’t usually responsible for day-to-day child rearing, and because they’ve done and seen it all before, they often take a more relaxed approach with kids. Rather than strict authoritarian figures, they’re secret confidants, friends and “light-hearted conspirators.” As a result, they’re often the ones youth turn to with sensitive issues. Parents may teach their offspring to be book and street smart, but grandparents pass on emotional and social intelligence that shapes our character and how we interact with the world.

Intergenerational relationships provide children with a stronger sense of the family unit as a “we.” They emphasize that family, community and cultural heritage are larger than the individual and provides a sense of security. If you think millennials are selfish now, just wait until you meet a generation of kids raised without grandparents.

Losing nonna’s secret sauce won’t only be disastrous for our taste buds, but also a cultural loss. Parents largely focus on fundamental responsibilities while grandparents have time to pass on recipes, stories and traditions that have existed for generations. In a country as diverse as Canada, older generations are a key part of ensuring we remain a cultural mosaic with rich ethnic histories. Many top chefs credit their grandparents’ kitchens for inspiration and the stories we hear around their dinner tables influences everything from music to theatre.

Even Drake has rapped about his grandmother, Evelyn, who also made a cameo on his 2011 track, “Look What I’ve Done.” Without grandparents, we may soon be a basic nation existing on Kraft Dinner and Bryan Adams reissues.

Next time you ignore that phone call from grandma, remember you might be one of the last generations with the luxury of doing so. A world without grandparents may be unimaginable, but it’s entirely possible.

This piece first appeared in the National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux