WITH teachers striking these past few weeks, grandparents have come into their own.

While the nation’s educators have gathered outside the school gates waving placards, the least collectivised workforce in the country set its alarm, rose in the dark, and made sure there was somebody in the house when their grandchildren’s mum and dad headed out early to work, or returned home at night.

For parents unable to take time off during the strikes, the older generation has proved a lifeline. Those poor souls who cannot call on family help have had either to lose a day’s pay (or more), eat into their precious holiday allowance, or juggle the clamorous demands of young children while attempting to work from the kitchen table. By contrast, those with parents on tap have been able to clock on to their shift serenely, knowing that all is well on the home front in their absence.

But it’s not just at crisis points that seniors step into the breach. Increasingly it seems that grandparents have become an essential cog in the UK economy, without whom the engine would run at half speed, if not grind to a halt.

Mid-morning, when the working-age population is confined to the office, the high street or local park are filled with toddlers and pre-schoolers accompanied by granny or grandad. At this hour, in bygone days, they would have been heading for the bowling green. No longer do they have that luxury.

Once retirement cards and gifts are pushed to the back of a drawer, out come trainers and hoodies as the 21st-century’s pensioners limber up for looking after the newest members of the family. “It’ll keep me young!”, they tell themselves, but to judge by their pallor, and the faint air of harassment and exhaustion as they push prams laden with shopping bags, or try to keep up with a four-year-old on her scooter, hands-on grandparenting is no elixir of youth.

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Nobody knows exactly how many hours this generation puts in to make sure their children’s household continues to run smoothly. Economists attempt to calculate what this unpaid army contributes to the national coffers – it runs into the high billions – but it’s pure guesswork. Unlike every other occupation, from delivery drivers on zero hours contracts to professors with tenure, these unofficial drones go almost entirely under the radar.

Nor is it enough casually to dip in and out of child-care duties as the mood takes you. Once added to the domestic rota, being the grandparent of school-age kids becomes a rigorous undertaking. Absences require a doctor’s note, lateness is a sackable offence and holidays must be booked with advance notice of at least a month. As I’ve witnessed, their own lives are moulded entirely around the needs of the young. The only way to be sure of a respite, it seems, is to flee the country.

To accommodate the complicated schedules of two households of working parents with children of differing ages and school hours, two sets of grandparents I know organise their shared responsibilities with the efficiency of a military operation.

Without WhatsApp, attendance in a certain Glasgow primary school and nursery would drastically fluctuate. If granny is ill, her opposite number drops everything and steps up. They might not use timetabling spreadsheets on Googleshare, but it would probably help. How else to make sure that no child is left feeling forlorn in the headteacher’s office at home time, waiting for a tardy relative to turn up?

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At the very least, doing school pickups (and after-school activities, homework and bedtime) has sharpened many a 60-something’s digital skills. More importantly, their help is an invaluable contribution to individual and collective prosperity.

Considering how heavily young and middle-aged parents rely on such support, the time is fast approaching when we will recall the Bank of Mum and Dad with a touch of nostalgia. Those were the days, when all that was required was liquidating assets and helping junior get onto the property ladder. Or move up it as the number of offspring multiplied.

Now, as well as emptying their bank accounts, grandparents have become nanny and home tutor too. Not to mention, with some I could mention, an outpost of Deliveroo. Making batch supplies of lasagne or fish pie to ease the chore of cooking when hard-pressed parents get in from work is yet another deluxe service the most high-powered relatives provide. As is decorating the house when the youngsters are away at Center Parks.

Is there no end to their generosity? I suspect not. I was struck by the wistfulness of a friend who admitted to finding the hours a little hard going, but was determined not to slacken. “They aren’t going to need me for much longer,” he said. There was a sorrowful sense that these years, during which he and his wife were an essential part of their grandchildren’s lives was, like summer’s lease, all too short a date.

But not everybody is prepared, or able, to get that involved. A full-time working friend has already told her adult children that while she’ll happily babysit at weekends, they can’t expect any regular shifts when they start a family. Others, meanwhile, can sense their youngsters’ disappointment – and indeed irritation – when hinting that, come retirement, they hadn’t anticipated swapping one demanding schedule for another.

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These days, it’s as if helping out in later life is part of a parent’s job description. It’s not enough to pay for a child’s further education or towards their first flat. Just as no parent ever fully stops worrying about their child, nor do their obligations ever cease.

Will this gradually alter the way parents are viewed? With an eye to the future, will rebellious teenagers begin to curb their obnoxiousness? Will they start obeying curfew, in anticipation of calling in favours in 15 years’ time from the folk who, at the moment, feel like prison guards? Unlikely.

The present incarnation of gran and grandpa is only a more orchestrated version of what went on in the past. Running a family might be a little more complicated, but some things remain simple: grandparents will always help out as best and whenever they can. Even if it comes as a cost. As one reflects, “My grandchildren believe I’m the oldest thing in the world. After a couple of hours with them, I believe it too.”