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  • How is the pandemic impacting members of the Sandwich Generation?
  • How is the pandemic impacting members of the Sandwich Generation?
    Andrea Piacquadio (2020) ©
Thought leader

Claire Gillman on why Gen X are everyday heroes

Choosing between getting your kid to school or your parent to medical appointments is a regular issue for the Sandwich Generation. Canvas8 spoke to Claire Gillman, author of We Are The Sandwich Generation: Keeping Everyone Happy to understand the unique pressures faced by this group.

Location Global

Scope
“As the expression goes, we spend our youth attaining wealth, and our wealth attaining youth,” wrote Douglas Coupland in Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture in 1991. However, it seems that instead of attaining youth, many Gen Xers fall into the Sandwich Generation, a demographic that cares for both their children and their ageing parents at the same time.

Indeed, with life expectancy increasing and women having children later than generations ago, a growing portion of the population is finding themselves with this double responsibility. In the UK, 1.3 million people (3% of adults) are a part of the Sandwich Generation. [1] In the US, the figures are similar – 29% of adults have an under-18 child living at home and 12% of care for an adult as well, spending on average over 2.5 hours per day on unpaid care. [2]

With time and money scarce, the pressures for this cohort can be significant. For many, they’re expected to increase their expenses, reduce their working hours, or even leave their job to fulfill their responsibilities. In fact, 32% of the Sandwich Generation say they’ve made financial sacrifices for their parents and children – with an estimated $10,000 lost. [3] Canvas8 spoke to Claire Gillman, author of We Are The Sandwich Generation: Keeping Everyone Happy, and Dr. Hannah Swift, senior lecturer in social and organisational psychology at the University of Kent, about how Gen Xers have to care for everyone and the pressures that come with that.

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Piling on the pressure
It’s easy to see how juggling the school run with health check-ups for your ageing parents could be stressful. Indeed, the Sandwich Generation experience poor mental health due to these responsibilities, and 27% of British Sandwich carers show symptoms of mental ill-health while caring for both their children and sick, disabled, or older relatives. [1]Gillman explains the issue as a gulf between expectation and reality. “The Sandwich Generation grew up believing that we could have it all. Culturally, we are bombarded with images of perfect families, perfect teeth, everything. And no one wants to feel they're falling short,” she says. [4]

The Sandwich Generation are feeling the pressure from both sides and often presented with impossible choices: having to choose between their daughter’s piano recital or taking their mother to an important health check-up. “People are racked with guilt because maybe they can’t do as much as they would like,” says Gillman. “If I spend every third weekend with mum and dad, I'm neglecting my children or my husband or my partner.” [4] Because of these pressures, symptoms of ill health plague the Sandwich Generation, and they spend half an hour less sleeping on average than other generations, according to a 2017 report. [5] The prevalence of mental health issues also increases with the amount of care given – 33% of carers who are giving 20 hours of adult care per week report symptoms of poor health compared to 23% of those giving fewer than five hours each week. [1]

COVID-19 has exacerbated these issues, as families and intergenerational relationships are a source of risk for coronavirus transmission and infection. The effects of the stress on the Sandwich Generation are clear, and they have seen their time shrunk to be able to manage their responsibilities. Indeed, 43% of them are getting less rest and relaxation, 39% are getting less sleep, and 37% are getting less exercise. [6] All of this is contributing to 80% of the Sandwich Generation in the US who are feeling ‘often’ or ‘constantly’ overwhelmed. [7] “Many would have had to make tough decisions as they adapt to pandemic guidelines, which could be weighing on them psychologically,” says Dr. Hannah Swift, whose research focuses on intergenerational contact and age-friendly communities, workplaces. and design. [8]

Working to address the needs of both their children and parents
vWorking to address the needs of both their children and parents
Vlada Karpovich (2020) ©

Tightening belts
As the population ages, and people have children later in their lives, the portion of the workforce considered to be part of the Sandwich Generation is growing. [9] Indeed, the children of Boomers are entering their 30s, 40s, and 50s – their prime earning years. This means the Sandwich Generation not only have had to balance care for children and ageing parents but work responsibilities, too. The impact can be significant and 28% have made career sacrifices to spend time with older family members. [3] “When your children are young, your employers are aware parents are going to have some calls on their time to attend to medical appointments,” says Gillman. “But in terms of taking time to support older relatives, that's not been particularly talked about or given official consideration.” [4]

The strain of being a member of the Sandwich Generation can be a burden both emotionally and financially – 30% of US adults who aren’t currently caregivers say they aren’t financially prepared at all to be a caregiver for older relatives if needed. [10] However, the impact can be huge and 31% of dual caregivers spend at least $3,000 each month caring for an ageing family member, 34% spend between $1,000 and $2,999 each month. [11] This shock is most harshly felt by the younger portion of the Sandwich Generation, who find themselves squeezed by student loan payments, medical debt, and stagnant wages – and all this was before the pandemic hit. [6] This provides a huge hit to the economy as a whole, and Americans miss out on $28.9 billion in wages every year to care for family members. [12]

To further this pressure, COVID-19 has caused people to lose promotions, jobs, and financial security. However, those in the Sandwich Generation have been particularly affected as their out-of-pocket costs have jumped by $200 a month. [6] The pandemic also means an increase in the number of people in the Sandwich Generation who found their relatives getting sick and being unable to help them. “The Sandwich Generation are likely to be dealing with multiple challenges imposed by the pandemic, for instance, changes to work structure and culture, such as working from home, or increases or decreases in work and pay, depending on their occupation,” says Dr. Swift. [8]

People need flexible work policies to juggle parenting and caregiving
People need flexible work policies to juggle parenting and caregiving
Kamaji Ogino (2020) ©

Changing demographics
It has been well documented that women are more likely than men to take on caregiving responsibilities. In fact, 55% of women are caregivers, compared to 45% of men, which worsens already existing inequalities in pay equity, unpaid labour, and labour force participation. [13] One reason for this is that older women are more likely to need help in their retirement due to the gender pay gap impacting their finances later on in life, and call on their daughters to help with their health needs. Indeed, over-65 women are twice as likely to be poor as over-65 men. [14] Women are also more likely to shoulder the bulk of household labour, including caregiving responsibilities. “Undoubtedly, women take the brunt of it because they tend to be traditionally the caregivers and try to juggle jobs,” says Gillman. Indeed, in the US, 84% of female caregivers say they feel overwhelmed compared to 75% of male caregivers. [7] While caregiving by women is more common in the US, in other countries, such as China, cultural expectations fall much harder on women to be the ones to look after ageing parents. [15]

This said, a growing cohort of younger people are joining the Sandwich Generation – Gen Yers especially, as they make up 39% of the Sandwich Generation. With more elderly relatives isolated and falling ill, 40% of Gen Yers say they’re more likely to be caring for an elderly parent than they were before the pandemic. [16] Not only does this affect people’s finances, but it’s also affecting their personal relationships. With 25% of caregivers saying they’ve made sacrifices in their romantic relationships, and with many sacrificing their careers or even setting out on careers simply to be able to fund their parent’s retirement, this cohort will feel the effects of being dual carers on many fronts. [3][17]

The Sandwich Generation are not only becoming increasingly younger as a result of the pandemic, but also more diverse. In the US, Latinx caregivers are most likely to spend higher-than-average time providing care for loved ones at 34%, followed by Black caregivers at 29%, and White Gen Yer caregivers at 20%. [18] Because of this, inequalities in society are worsening as the burden of caregiving is more likely to fall on the shoulders of women, minorities, and the young. Those who are less well-off are also feeling the burden, and 84% of those with annual incomes below $50,000 report feeling overwhelmed compared to 63% of respondents with annual incomes above $150,000. [7]

Platforms that offer multigenerational money visibility would win fans
Platforms that offer multigenerational money visibility would win fans
Kampus Production (2020) ©

Insights and opportunities

Mental health aids
With parents on one side, kids on the other, and a boss still demanding strict 9-5 productivity, those in the Sandwich Generation can feel the pressure is ever-mounting. “Being able to talk honestly with all of the people in your life, and being able to say to them, ‘I feel I really can't work out how to be true to myself in terms of what I want from life, but also being true to myself in terms of caring’, can be a struggle,” says Gillman. [4] Indeed, with members of the Sandwich Generation more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression, there’s space out there for services that cater to their unique needs. [19] UK-based tech start-up Lifted, which matches IRL carers with members and gives users real-time updates and wellness data about their older family members via an app, also runs a Facebook support group called Caring for Loved Ones. Creating a neutral and largely organic space such as this enables users to build community and find support to fit their needs.

Mission control
Helping their children save for their future (or trying to save for their children) while ensuring their parent’s finances are all in order, the Sandwich Generation need services that enable them to have 360-degree financial visibility. However, these can be lacking. “It's usually in one direction but there are no services that are really targeted at the people who are responsible for the finances of three generations,” says Gillman. [4] While services like Eu Vô in Brazil, for example, are working to empower older people to perform day-to-day activities without help, brands would be wise to get innovative to give their children more visibility on exactly how they need to help their parents out.

Creating flexible work policies
COVID-19 showed office workers just how flexible work structures can be. “Employers should be willing to be open to discussion about the situation and be flexible,” says Gillman. “It's not an expectation that employers would carry the brunt of the cost, but it's about being creative and taking a collaborative approach to work out a solution, rather than putting the employee in the position of always having to feel guilty about asking.” [4] In a post-COVID-19 world, employers would do well to ask about people’s needs and allow for flexible working arrangements around that, such as flexible start and finish times or being able to work extra hours on certain days to have more time off. Expectations for care vary across cultures, with government policies helping or hindering the Sandwich Generation. For example, in China, a law requires children to visit their parents, while in Russia and France, expectations are high but lessening for caregivers. [20][21]

Sources
1. ONS (January 2019)
2. Pew Research Center (November 2018)
3. New York Times (February 2020)
4. Interview with Claire Gillman conducted by the author
5. Place for Mom (July 2020)
6. Forbes (November 2020)
7. Yahoo News (March 2020)
8. Interview with Dr. Hannah Swift conducted by the author
9. Forbes (January 2019)
10. YouGov (January 2020)
11. T. Rowe Price (March 2019)
12. Center for American Progress (September 2016)
13. Caring Across Generations (November 2019)
14. National Women’s Law Center (April 2019)
15. Global Times (December 2020)
16. USA Today (November 2020)
17. Refinery29 (May 2020)
18. Business Wire (November 2020)
19. New Statesman (January 2019)
20. BBC News (July 2013)
21. HSE University (April 2014)

Featured Experts

Claire Gillman

Claire Gillman is a journalist, editor, and writer. An expert in alternative health and parenting, she’s the author of ‘We Are The Sandwich Generation: Keeping Everyone Happy’.

Dr. Hannah Swift

Dr. Hannah Swift is a senior lecturer in social and organisational psychology at the University of Kent and a specialist in intergenerational contact and age-friendly communities, workplaces, and design.

Author

Isabel Evans is a behavioural analyst at Canvas8. Fascinated by how and why people do things, she has an MSc in cognitive and decision sciences from UCL. You can often find her drinking endless coffees, running around Regent’s Park, or delving into a book.

Canvas8

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