In order to ensure the solvency of public pensions plans, most Western governments set the double goal to raise retirement age and to increase female labour market participation. All in the Family: Informal Childcare and Mothers’ Labour Market Participation (ISER Working Paper Series, 2010-24) by Bruno Arpino, Chiara Pronzato and Lara Tavares (Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics) proves that the role of grandparents in childcare sparks off a conflict between the two policies, at least in Italy.
In countries where public childcare is scarcely available or very expensive, the three scholars argue, mothers rely on grandparents to receive informal childcare services to an extent previously unobserved. Using a sample of 3,852 mothers, they find that Italian mothers helped by grandparents are 39 percentage points more likely to work. The effect is stronger for less educated mothers (a tighter economic constraint limiting their access to private childcare), for families with younger children (public childcare for them being less available than for children over 3 years old and mothers preferring to have them looked after at home) and for women living in the North and Centre of Italy (being more inclined to use public childcare than more traditionalistic Southern women). The role of grandmothers is more important than grandfathers’.
Grandparents’ contribution to childcare, though, is not granted to all families. Families with grandparents dead, incapacitated or living far away can’t obviously enjoy their help, while grandparents with multiple grandchildren may not be able to cope with the task. Working grandparents are, as well, cut out.
Thanks to the information bundled in the dataset (the Multiscopo – Families and Social Subjects Survey published by the National Institute of Statistics in 2003), the paper measures for the first time the effect of actual informal childcare provision by grandparents in Italy, while previous studies could only gauge the effect of grandparents’ availability in geographical proximity.
Analyzing the reasons why some mothers don’t use formal childcare, the study underlines the importance of cultural preferences. The fact is that very few of the mothers keeping children at home complain about costs or opening hours, but they express a true preference for a more internal type of childcare. An international comparison shows that the percentage of grandparents looking after their grandchildren on a daily basis is only 2% in Denmark and Sweden, 15% in Germany and Austria and 30% in Italy and Spain.
Thus, simply more childcare services may not be enough to attain the goal of increasing female labour force participation. “The increase in quantity”, the authors write, “needs to be matched by an increase in quality and a corresponding increase in perceived quality”.
These results suggest that increasing the availability of public childcare would be a measure affecting female labour market participation more in the North and Centre of Italy than in the South, where the traditional cultural preference would anyway limit the use of such services.