A hidden resource: grandma

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Intangible assets exist in many forms. Human capital is one. But human capital means more than just the skills of the individual. Human capital is best used when united with social/relational capital. And that conjunction doesn't just happen in formal organizations - but also in societal organizations such as families. Case in point is this analysis by Judith Shulevitz from The New Republic on "Why Do Grandmothers Exist? Solving an evolutionary mystery."

The story starts with the biological question of why, from an evolutionary point of view, do human females, unlike most mammals, have long post-menopause lives. One of the standard answers is that grandmothers are valuable as workers and supplemental child care providers (the so-called "grandmother hypothesis"). But Shulevitz argues the true answer is more than just having an extra pair of hands around to help with the work.

Mature people of both sexes have a lifetime's worth of education and experience. We'd be crazy to waste that surplus value, especially when so many people languish after retirement, mortified at no longer being needed. To show how much retirees have to offer, [Linda] Fried [dean of Columbia University's school of public health] started a program that puts them in at-risk public schools in 19 cities. Early results suggest that children read better and get sent to the principal less often in classrooms where seniors spend 15 hours a week, perhaps because they give teachers support and embarrass students inclined to act up. For their part, the volunteers do better on tests of health and happiness, probably because they like feeling useful.

As for actual grandparents, a growing body of research shows how much they help their grandchildren, even when they aren't giving them hands-on care or food. Often enough, though, they do provide those things, especially in poor families or ones with dysfunctional parents. The number of children being raised by their grandparents has been steadily rising since 2000. In 2011, there were 2.75 million such children in the United States.

But grandparents also give grandchildren more intangible gifts. In the mid-'90s, a Stanford University fellow named Luba Botcheva went home to Bulgaria to study how grandparents affected families struggling to survive the fall of communism. In the remote and very traditional region where she did her research, several generations would live under the same roof. The socialist-era factories had been shut down, and jobs were scarce. Botcheva discovered that grandparents' pensions were often the most dependable source of a household's income. In addition to paying the bills, however, grandparents buffered grandchildren against the harsh parenting that comes from acute anxiety. Children who grew up with grandparents in the home reported less depression than those without. "It was the opposite of what we expected," she said. "I called it the 'moderation effect.'" Many of the grandparents had lived through World War II, so when it came to poverty and uncertainty about the future, they had "social wisdom" to share, as Botcheva puts it, which kept tension levels down.

How to tap into that intangible capital of grandma? Shulevitz answer:

But children still need the nurture they once got from their mothers' mothers. So it's worth thinking, along with Fried, about institutions that would give parents and children that grandparental boost. I dream of communal houses or apartment complexes where families could live near grandparents but not right on top of them. That vision gives rise to others, some of them unlikely in our conservative United States, but realities elsewhere: publicly funded day care, better mothers' and children's aid societies, a national version of Fried's experiment of putting older people in schools. These programs would take advantage of our deepening wellspring of senior talent, which would cut costs, make old people happier, and sew up the threadbare bonds among the generations. If we want to keep enjoying the grandmother effect, we'll just have to broaden our idea of what a grandmother can be.

I agree. But we need to broaden our understanding of the role of not just grandmother, but all older individuals. As Fried is quoted in the story, "Older adults constitute the only increasing natural resource in the entire world." That may not be completely true. But it highlights the importance of utilizing that natural resource wisely.

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