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Are You in the 'Sandwich Generation'?

'Sandwich generation' is a cute coinage, but what it describes is anything but.

by Sarah Cottrell | June 23, 2021
<p>Multi-generational family posing outdoors</p>

If you are taking care of both parents and children, then you are living in the "Sandwich Generation."

The Squeeze

  • The Sandwich Generation is a term that describes a life stage typical to middle-aged adults who might find themselves caring for both children and parents.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the financial stress for Sandwich Generation caregivers.
  • There are many support groups to help "sandwiched" caregivers seek advice and resources.

When we think of the term generation, we typically think of a set of characteristics that define a group of people born between specific years. For example, Baby Boomers might be described as post-WWII go-getters who redefined American values. Researchers see Generation X-ers as having a streak of ultra-independence after being raised as latch-key kids. And Millenials, well, they love social media and social justice. But one experience that each of these generations has in common is the phenomenon of joining the sandwich generation. 

'Sandwich Generation' is a cute coinage, but what it describes is anything but. Being “sandwiched” — which usually happens in midlife -- means you are an adult who is caring for your aging parents and your children at the same time. And it’s no surprise that tending to financial, mental, and emotional needs of dependent family members on both ends of the life cycle can be incredibly draining. 

According to the Pew Research Center, roughly half of Americans in their 40s and 50s have an aging parent and also care for young children or financially support a child who is 18 or older. And of these middle-aged Americans, 15 percent is paying for care on both sides of the sandwich. 

It is no small feat to take care of aging parents who might need round-the-clock care while simultaneously raising kids, and oh, you know, earning a living. But to make matters more complicated, social pressure adds an uncomfortable layer of anxiety to the mix. For many years, public opinion has held that it is more critical for middle-aged people to take care of their elderly family over their adult children. The theory goes like this; aging parents may not be able to take care of themselves, but grown children entering adulthood can enter the workforce and become self-sufficient. After all, those adult children are likely capable and have their whole lives in front of them. 

It is no small feat to take care of aging parents who might need round-the-clock care while simultaneously balancing work life and raising kids.

However, one problem with this theory is that the American economy is not the glorious engine of progress that it once was when Baby Boomers achieved their American Dreams, landing homeownership and, often, raising families on a single income. In fact, since the 1980s, household income has not increased at the same pace as cost of living.

And, of course, the world’s current health crisis has only made matters worse. Since the start of the Covid19 pandemic, for example, costs associated with aging parents' care climbed to an average of $1,000 a month. On the other generational side, 52 percent of young adults now live at home with their parents —  a percentage not seen since the Great Depression. 

So here’s the current societal mix: skyrocketing healthcare costs, a shaky economy, a global pandemic, and a housing shortage. It’s no wonder so many families are feeling the squeeze. 

There is no one way to be a sandwich 

There are many ways in which a family might find itself identifying as a sandwich-generation household. National expert on aging and eldercare Carol Abaya has coined a few more phrases that help better capture the unique realities of multigenerational households. 

The traditional sandwich describes a middle-aged person caring for both children and aging parents. The financial milestones for these generations can include childcare and paying for college along with nursing home care or medical interventions for aging parents. Keep in mind that these added financial stressors are in addition to coordinating a busy work and home life. For many middle-aged people sandwiched between generational obligations, trying to pay the rent and keep food on the table is a pressing struggle. 

The club sandwich describes middle-aged people caring for more than one generation above or below, so adults caring for their parents, their adult children, and their grandchildren. Or adults who are caring for their children, parents, and grandparents. During the height of the pandemic, when most daycares and schools were closed or forced to move into remote learning situations, the dire lack of adequate and affordable child care options for American families became painfully obvious. For many families, this shortage in care triggered moves, whether having parents and children moving into their grandparents' home or vice versa, so the financial burden and hands-on workload of raising children could be shared.

The open-faced sandwich describes anyone of any age caring for an elderly relative, since not everyone fits neatly into a singular definition of family structures, and not everyone has children. But the burdens of eldercare are significant, both financially and emotionally.

Millennials aren’t youngsters anymore

Though our culture still cracks wise in poking at Millennial attitudes, the truth is they are very much the grownups now. In 2021, they began turning 40, and they already represent a full one-third of caregivers who are tending to more than one generation. And since the majority of Millennials came of age just as our economy suffered a crushing blow due to the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession, many of them are ill-prepared to prepare for retirement. 

According to the insurance company, New York Life, Millenials have fewer kids, experience fewer opportunities to access resources that were available to Gen X and Baby Boomers, such as pensions, which have largely been replaced by the less-reliable, less-rewarding 401(k). And they are also significantly less likely to build wealth through homeownership. 

Smaller families mean the next generation of kids will grow up and face caring for their parents without the help of two or more siblings, who can share shouldering the cost of caring for aging parents and grandparents. All of these converging societal shifts, and the uncertainty they bring into people’s lives, combine to create one clear certainty: the sandwich generation, with its multi-dimensional financial challenges, is in a tight spot and maybe squeezed even further in coming decades.

The good news about being squeezed

Okay, that’s a lot to take in. So before you buckle under the pressure of being squeezed into a sandwich of responsibilities, let’s look at some bright spots. One of the brightest is the shift back toward multiple generations living under one roof, which is increasing for the first time after decades of decline: recent research shows that there’s been a ten percent uptick since 2007, and that study was conducted before the impact of COVID. Homebuilders have been reporting a 15 percent increase in demand for multi-generational home plans after COVID.

Despite the financial stress that might come with multigenerational dependents, sharing experiences between young kids and older relatives can help keep spirits up, family history alive, and create stronger familial relationships. And in the end, that’s what it’s all about: the memories we make, no matter how many ways we may be feeling the squeeze.

If you are a caregiver and need support, many resources are available. Here’s a list of support groups you can check out right now.

Caregivers Connect
Caregivers Connect is a private Facebook community for caregivers who need a safe place to share stories and ask for advice. 

AARP Caregiving Support
AARP is a well-known and trusted voice that aims to empower people to lead their best lives while aging. They run a message board where caregivers can ask and receive support. 

AgainCare Caregiver Support Forum
AgingCare runs a community bulletin board where caregivers can share stories, seek advice, and find resources. 

In a world that tends to make elderly members of society invisible, having a rooted family to nurture and love aging parents and grandparents can provide an excellent opportunity to care for them in a meaningful way that honors their wants and needs. 

Got a question or a story to share?

Contact us at editors@firstly.com

About the Author

Sarah Cottrell is a Maine-based freelance writer and novelist. Her work covers Gen X lifestyle, history, parenting, finance, science, and history and her work has appeared on VICE, Mashable, Washington Post, REAL Simple, Parents Magazine, The Cut, and more. 

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