What Is the Sandwich Generation?

The sandwich generation refers to middle-aged individuals who are pressured to support both aging parents and growing children. The sandwich generation is named so because they are effectively "sandwiched" between the obligation to care for their aging parents—who may be ill, unable to perform various tasks, or in need of financial support—and children, who require financial, physical, and emotional support.

The trends of increasing lifespans and having children at an older age have contributed to the sandwich generation phenomenon, as it has more societal acceptance for adult children to live at home or return home as with boomerang kids

Key Takeaways

  • The sandwich generation refers to middle-aged adults (often in their 40s and 50s) who are caring for both elderly parents and their own children.
  • There are nonprofits and government programs, like the Aging Life Care Association, designed to offer advice to both the elderly and their adult children.
  • The adult children of sandwich generation parents should be encouraged to contribute financially and become independent. 
  • Some members of the sandwich generation find themselves putting off retirement to offer financial support to aging parents and adult offspring.
  • Estate and financial planning can help provide support for aging parents and their caregivers.

Understanding the Sandwich Generation

A Pew Research Center study estimated that about one in seven Americans between the ages of 40 and 60 are simultaneously providing some financial assistance to both a child and a parent. With the added pressures of managing one's own career and personal issues, as well as the need to contribute to one's own retirement, the individuals of the sandwich generation are under significant financial and emotional stress.

In some cases, these baby boomers are having to postpone their own retirements because of the added financial obligations. Also, some members of the sandwich generation are further overextended by caring for their grandchildren.

Approximately 12% of parents are in the sandwich generation. According to the same Pew Research Center study, full-time working caregivers spend approximately three hours daily caring for their parents and children, outside of working hours. More than half of the caregivers are women, and those women often spend more time caring for their children than male caregivers.

The financial burden can be as heavy as the time commitment. Many estimate that they have lost more than $10,000 caring for their children and parents. This is not what has been spent caring for them; rather, it is what they have lost (.e.g., missed work, promotions, etc.) in caring for them.

The sandwich generation, in the traditional sense of the term, refers to people sandwiched between caring for their parents and children. The club sandwich generation refers to people in their 50s and 60s who care for their parents, adult children, and grandchildren. It can also be used to describe younger adults who care for their parents, grandparents, and children. The open-faced sandwich generation refers to the population of people involved in or caring for the elderly.

The obligations placed on the sandwich generation demand considerable time and money.

Lessening the Financial Burden

Elderly Parents

There are some steps that members of the sandwich generation can take to lessen the burden. The first is to discuss finances with all parties involved. For elderly parents, the hope is that a lifetime of work has left them with a pension or nest egg to offset some of the financial burdens of care. If this is not the case, then you need to reach out for help as soon as possible. The Aging Life Care Association and other non-profits and government programs can provide guidance and support.

90 million

The estimated number of elderly people in the US by 2050.

Adult Children

For adult children, the task is to get them contributing financially and moving towards independence. There are many ways to encourage this, but the easiest is setting the expectations that they will pay for the room and board at near-market rates. This removes the "mom & dad discount" that allows them to have a more extravagant lifestyle than their finances can support long-term. 

Siblings and ElderCare

Even if finances are not currently an issue, they will become one unless you put proper attention into estate planning. If one sibling from a family is taking on the majority of the burden of care for an elderly parent, then it is worth discussing the estate in that context. The sibling may not want to be financially recognized for his or her care, but not having that discussion is a sure way to foster resentment among the family when mom or dad passes on. 

Managing Stress

Managing the care for another person can be a daunting task; and the stress associated with managing care for multiple people with varying needs, such as children and aging parents, can be extraordinary. Studies show that people in the sandwich generation lose at least a half-hour of sleep per night and often develop chronic stress, which can lead to serious illnesses like high blood pressure, diabetes, and depression.

It is important for caregivers to not forget about themselves. They can delegate tasks to others, find time to do things they enjoy, join a support group, and seek help from a counselor. Self-care activities should be of interest to the caregiver. Some examples include exercising, journaling, or engaging in a hobby.

Just as the caregiver helps others, so should the caregiver receive help to appropriately balance life. People within the household can serve as the best helpers because they are close to the caregiver and are most familiar with the work that the caregiver does. If unable to help, they could ask family outside of the household.

Counseling and support groups can provide the caregiver with the space to discuss their feelings, share stories, and gather advice to help them manage their life and stress. Counseling can deal with the anxiety, stress, and depression associated with caregiving.