“One of the most fascinating studies I’ve ever done,” says Peter Francese, founder of American Demographics Magazine and one of the nation’s leading demographics and consumer marketing experts, describing the report published last summer by MetLife Mature Market Institute titled “American Grandparents: New Insights for a New Generation of Grandparents.”
Distilled from an impressive compilation of charts and statistics are revelations that Francese believes have significant implications for U.S. society for decades to come: “The data show that over the past decade, grandparents and grandparenting have changed dramatically. Most are still working and many plan to continue working, which means they will be earning and spending far longer than any generation of grandparents before them. They also have most of the nation’s wealth and have become safety nets for their children and grandchildren, many ofwhom can’t find jobs and are burdened with debt. That’s a role reversal that flies in the face of the Norman Rockwell image of grandparents whose contributions to society and our economy diminish with age.”
In a recent interview with GRAND, Francese shared his thoughts about the findings of the landmark study of the nation’s estimated 65 million grandparents age 45 and above.
GRAND: Based on the findings and your analysis, do you see grandparents leading a return to old-fashioned values regarding expectations, work, family and personal responsibility?
Francese: Not really, partly because today values are very fragmented. But I do see grandparents leading a return to realism; that is, helping their children and grandchildren get comfortable with lower expectations. Just a few years ago, the general belief was that real estate values and the stock market would continue an endless upward spiral. The result was an unrealistic attitude regarding financial returns. Well, those days are over. I call it the Echo of the Great Depression phenomenon. The new reality is that economic recovery could take a decade and we’re all going to have to adjust our expectations. That may be hard for Generations X and Y to accept. I think the people in the Occupy movement, for example, don’t feel disenfranchised as much as they feel exploited.
GRAND: Do you see grandparents, as consumers, leading the way out of the current recession?
Francese: Absolutely. Our research shows that over the next ten years, as early boomers grow older, they are likely to work longer, have higher incomes and spend more than any of their predecessors of ages 65 to 74 years old. As we point out in the report, the lack of better-paying jobs and real income growth among young adults may support the conclusion that grandparents’ children and grandchildren will not live as well as their parents. There is hope, however, that many highly skilled grandparents will find ways to use their talents and knowledge to improve their offspring’s prospects.
GRAND: Do you see resentment developing among the generations, particularly on the part of Generation X and the Millennials, because of increasingly limited resources to support job creation and vital services such as health care?
Francese: I don’t know that I’d call it resentment. On the other hand, until we see job growth in this country, there is bound to be some competition among groups of people vying for jobs with benefits and advancement opportunities. The problem is exacerbated by the huge cost of education and health insurance, requiring younger adults to carry heavier debt in order to get a good education and protect themselves against the high cost of health care. It seems to me that the American dream of owning your own home is in jeopardy.
GRAND: Of the implications described in the report, which do you think is the most significant in terms of long-term impact on our society?
Francese: It’s part of the way that boomers, most of whom are grandparents, are perceived. In my view, we have to change our age-related perception of what dependent means. For years, we’ve thought of people age 65 and older as dependent because their earning years were behind them and they were living on Social Security and whatever they had been able to save. That’s no longer true. The new threshold for dependency is now 75 or older because older adults are living longer, working longer, are more actively engaged in every aspect of life. They are breaking spending records on quality of life products and services, and are sharing more of their unprecedented good fortune with their children and grandchildren.
GRAND: What advice do you think grandparents should be giving to their children and grandchildren about their future prospects?
Francese: Without question, grandparents should emphasize the importance of education. We’ve known for years that there is a correlation between higher education and real income growth. Yet the data show that only 28 percent of men ages 25 to 34 are college graduates, the same percentage as 10 years ago, which reduces their ability to get even entry-level managerial or professional jobs.
By their encouragement and their financial support, grandparents can help assure that their grandchildren have the economic benefits of a college degree and lifelong learning.
GRAND: How would you like to sum up what is to be learned from this study of American grandparents?
Francese: The best summation is in the conclusion of the report I wrote. For at least the next decade, and probably well beyond, American grandparents will be playing a central role in the lives of their adult children and grandchildren, unlike anything we have ever seen before. Grandparents are one of our society’s greatest assets. We’re learning how best to invest that asset for the benefit of the next generations.
Peter Francese founded American Demographics Magazine (now part of Advertising Age) and speaks and writes frequently on demographic and consumer trends. He is currently the demographic trends analyst for the MetLife Mature Market Institute. He has authored several books on consumer markets and many studies on market segments. Francese is the recipient of the Silver Bell Award from the Advertising Council for distinguished public service and is a graduate of Cornell University.
Richard J. Anthony, Sr., is the Executive Vice President of GRAND Media and the author of Organizations, People & Effective Communication. He is also a consultant, author, teacher, TV producer and entrepreneur. As cofounder of igrandparents.com, he was a pioneer in using the internet to create a community for the nation’s grandparents. He and his wife have five children and 15 grandchildren. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.