Have you noticed how old people have been replacing car showrooms on West Berlin’s once-proud boulevard Kurfürstendamm?
Instead of the traditional practice of hiding the aged away in leafy suburban residences – on the spurious grounds that they need to suck in the forest air and hear the twittering of birds to stave off the Grim Reaper – they are living out in the open in the German capital, sandwiched between Kaisers supermarkets and Tchibo shops.
Their new homes are given supposedly glamorous but actually tactless names like Diana (did she not die in a car crash?) or, worse, Phoenix (rising from the ashes of retirement?) Anything really apart from Senioren-Residenz, which has a slight aura of decay, of the twilight zone.
What has changed, of course, is the city’s rental market. It is cheaper than ever to live on the wrong end of the Ku’damm – that is, anything beyond Adenauerplatz with its Sex shops and thrift stores – or on the once-fashionable Charlottenburg side streets. Plus there is good parking when the children come to visit on Mother’s Day. And, most important, old people themselves are no longer being seen as a separate species in Germany. It turns out, to the general amazement of urban planners and property developers, that they like human contact, that they have money and indeed are about the only Berliners willing to spend it at the moment.
So, nix the “Oma Barracks.” Instead, take up the message of Barack Obama: yes we can! Moving the oldies into the city centre is merely the first stage of empowerment for the over-60s, not only as recession-proof consumers, but as part of a new social alignment of Germany’s rapidly ageing society.
For once, the British are slightly ahead on this issue. The UK government is considering a scheme whereby grandparents will be paid to look after their grandchildren. Apparently grandparents are currently saving the state over €4 billion a year by providing free childcare. One in four families uses a grandparent for babysitting at least once a week. The proposal now is that families should receive a weekly €350 childcare allowance – basically a tax rebate – which they use to pay Oma and Opa. The result will be a surge of helpful oldies, freeing mothers to return to work.
Now, I can see a couple of problems with this. The first is naturally how does the state intend to pay for this? But with the government throwing billions at inefficient bankers, the question seems absurd. Since we know that old people spend their cash, why not give them greater earnings potential: the ailing economy can only benefit.
Second, should grandparents not be looking after the kids out of love, rather than financial interest?
This answer is more complex. Within my ageing circle of friends – elastic jeans, a tendency to mimic the guitar strumming of Jimi Hendrix when drunk, a nagging worry about hair loss – the interest in grand children seems to be rather abstract.
There is pride, of course, and photographs of lumpy unexceptional babies are removed from wallets more quickly than Lucky Luke can draw his Colt. Birthdays are remembered and celebrated, even if the young granddads I know usually find themselves on the balcony, away from the monkey house noise, puffing a Marlboro.
But actual childcare, regular, confident and reliable, is undertaken more out of guilt than with enthusiasm. Grandparents often feel that they somehow failed as parents and hope to compensate with the next generation, but confronted with the reality of nappy stench, they flag a little.
Money changes the equation. Active grandparenting becomes part of a contract. The classic confrontation between grandmother and adult daughter about how best to raise a baby – often stirring up bitter memories about past (real or imagined) neglect – will evaporate. The authority will rest with the mother of the baby who can, if necessary, fire the Grandma. Grandchildren will be less spoiled. And Oma and Opa will feel less exploited, less manipulated. The exchange of money sometimes poisons relationships but in this case I think it clarifies matters.
I have been arguing for years that the age of the au pair is coming to an end. Working parents are playing roulette by handing over their children to teenagers who often speak imperfect German, who cannot cook and cannot concentrate on the child because they are too busy answering text messages from similarly bored friends.
Grandparents may have outdated ideas and they may not be able to play football in the park, but at least they do not have eating disorders. They know when a child is sick or just pretending; they know the difference between a Big Mac and a bowl of homemade vegetable soup.
Not everyone has a grandmother willing or fit enough for childcare, but there is a large pool of other grandmothers out there in the city. What matters is the maturity, not the blood-tie.
Rent-a-grandmother: that is the future of Germany.