The sandwich generation is officially becoming a panini: More adults than ever are bearing the responsibilities of three generations at once, and with the rising costs of living, increased demands on their time, pandemic-related struggles and expenses related to elder care, the squeeze is tighter than ever.
An informal term describing adults who financially support themselves, their children and their elderly parents, the sandwich generation is primarily made up of individuals in their forties and fifties. And while the term was coined in 1980 after social work professor Dorothy A. Miller published a journal article titled, "The ‘Sandwich’ Generation: Adult Children of The Aging," the concept of generational care isn’t a recent phenomenon. Many cultures emphasize familial care and responsibility as a core tenet of social values, particularly in Latin America and Asia.
China’s sandwich generation particularly struggles with an unintended consequence of the nation’s former one-child policy: Approximately 170 million middle-aged Chinese are solely responsible for the care of their aging parents and young children, with no siblings to share the financial or emotional load.
Within the United States, the ranks of sandwich caregivers are also on the rise. In 2013, a Pew study found that approximately 15% of middle-aged Americans were financially providing for a parent over the age of 65 or a child. As of October 2021, that percentage has swelled to 23% of all U.S. adults — more than 11 million people.
Money and time: The sandwich generation’s greatest struggles
Carrying multiple generations taxes two main resources: money and time. College is more expensive these days, employee raises aren’t keeping up with inflation rates and medical costs continue to rise. Sandwich generation caregivers who are shuttling parents or children to medical appointments or social engagements may also find themselves strapped for time to themselves.
Plus, caregiver responsibilities disproportionately fall upon women and millennials in greater numbers, two demographics that have also experienced negative impact from recent economic events such as the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
3 ways to manage the burden of dual care
If you’ve been nodding your head and agreeing with everything written here, we probably don’t have to tell you how difficult your job can be. Or perhaps you know that you will join the ranks of the sandwich crew in the near future. Either way, these ideas may help lessen some of your short-term and long-term struggles.
Plan ahead for rainy days (as best as you can)
Money can be a challenging topic for discussion, especially where family is involved. But now is the time to plan ahead for future struggles so you can face those moments with a strategy in place.
If you are or anticipate helping your elderly parents down the road, schedule some time to make sure everyone is on the same page about medical and legal decisions that may need to be made. Look through their accounts together so you know what retirement funds, pensions and Social Security benefits they can rely on. When they retire, where will they live? If they need medical care, do they prefer to move into a facility with trained professionals or stay at home?
Similarly, you can begin including your children in discussions about family finances well before they turn 18. If you are co-parenting with another adult, make sure you’re on the same page about whether or not you plan to fund college for your children, offer allowances or have them look for jobs in their teens.
Establishing and re-iterating your parenting values can greatly lessen the financial and emotional burden for yourself, regardless of the direction you choose. This practice can also help your children get comfortable speaking about money and responsibility during critical ages of growth, paving the way for future channels of communication in their adulthood.
Don’t forget to budget for your own future
Planning ahead for your own twilight years is one of the best ways to prevent your children from reliving your current struggles. For example, life insurance can be a valuable investment if you’re a primary caregiver whose loss would impact your family in ways that extend beyond grief.
Setting aside money for retirement can feel like an impossible task if you’re already strapped for cash, and starting a second job or a side hustle may not be sustainable for long if free time is already scarce. Instead, try increasing your income by interviewing for a new job or negotiating a raise within your current company.
Establish clear boundaries and practice self-care
Your therapist has probably told you this already, so we’re just going to back them up: You’re not responsible for everyone else — even if they insist that you are. (And if you don’t already have a therapist, consider finding one to support you.)
Productive self-care is the act of investing in your mental, emotional and spiritual health so that you can show up as the best version of yourself. Caring for yourself doesn’t have to cost a dime or more than a few seconds of your time. Just a few moments of intentional mindfulness can go a long way toward relieving stress.
Learning to advocate for your own needs is an important aspect of effective self-care that can help you survive the pressure of multigenerational caregiving.
Sharing responsibilities with others in the same boat can lessen your load, and even give you time for a break every now and then. Consider organizing a carpool with other parents in your kids’ schools, or working with siblings or other relatives to split care for an elderly family member.
If your domestic partner is not evenly splitting the load of responsibilities with you, practice communicating what you need in order to make the relationship more balanced (and get your therapist involved if you feel stuck). If your family has expectations of you that you can no longer meet, remember that "No" is a complete sentence. If your adult children are capable of working but refuse to do so, don’t let them mooch a free ride at your expense if it means you have to pick up their slack.
Caring for your loved ones can be a weighty load, but it can also be a deeply meaningful experience. As you navigate your path forward, don’t forget to build a community of people who can support you along the way.