Ryan Shorthouse: Sandwich generation spread themselves thin

"MUM," I whisper. I poke her gently. Shake her too. But still she does not stir. "I'm just about to beat dad at Monopoly. Finally, like you've always wanted, I've hit the big time".

Mum is fast asleep. And it's only six o'clock. She's totally wiped out from an extended weekend with the family to celebrate dad's birthday. She's cooked lunch and dinner on both days, cleaned up and been a first

class host.

Our elderly relations stayed over – so she was forever playing hide and seek – with keys, gloves, pills etc. The game became quite monotonous after the 15th time.

I was back from London and said she didn't have to wash my clothes and iron them but, alas, she insisted.

What my mum experienced that weekend was the feeling of being sandwiched: looking after her children at the same time as her parents. Of course, she loves us all being at home. She wouldn't have it any other way. But, after a few days, it became exhausting.

She knows, however, that she's lucky that such caring only happens now and then – Christmas and birthdays, usually. My brother and I have now fled the nest. Most of the time, we're financially independent. And, despite the forgetfulness, my grandparents cope by themselves – my 81-year-old granddad hikes and drives everywhere and does a splendid job of looking after my grandma.

For others, looking after older children and elderly parents is frequent. When researchers talk about the "sandwich generation", they are referring to the parents who have young children and elderly parents to look after, caused by families having children later in their life and their parents living for longer. There are about one million people fitting this description and they are likely to be in their 40s.

These young parents may also have elderly grandparents – not just parents – to look after, caught in what researchers are describing as a "club sandwich".

But we must not forget that today's fifty and sixtysomethings, the baby-boomers who tended to have children earlier than the current thirty and fortysomethings, have not escaped the sandwich effect.

Two social trends have contributed to this. First, young people are dependent on their parents for longer. Faced with greater vulnerability to unemployment, student loans and expensive housing costs, young adults are looking to parents to help with debts. More parents now help their older children financially. The average handout is 12,610 a year.

The second social trend is that people are living longer. The average age for when people are no longer in fairly good health is about 70. Babyboomers are likely to have even older – and thus needier – parents than those who we typically think of in the sandwich generation. Especially if an elderly parent has lost their partner, they will

require extra care, which can be demanding on time and money.

Babyboomers may find in the near future that their children, who were dependent for so long, have children. They could well be called on for childcare. And the parents of these new babyboomer grandparents may well still be alive, again sandwiching them.

It may even be the case that some babyboomers already have a 31-

year-old daughter with a child, who needs help with childcare, and a 27-year-old son who still lives at home, as well as an elderly parent who needs support. It may also be the case that they need to look after elderly aunts and uncles.

Lots of different scenarios, clearly. So its time to stop thinking exclusively of the sandwich generation just as the million or so with young children and old parents.

Sandwiching can bring serious pressures. More dependents eat more of your savings. It also affects your ability to participate in the labour market, since employment with enough flexibility to complement caring responsibilities may not be obtainable.

Some 53 per cent of those classified as sandwiched say caring has affected their ability to find a job. Years spent caring can also

reduce pension entitlements and prevalence of ill-health is correlated with the number of hours spent caring.

Many parents of all ages now find themselves sandwiched. This will continue in the future. The life expectancy rate continues to rise. A greater number of young people get degrees and need postgraduate qualifications and internships to stand out from the crowd – saddling them with even more debt – and the cost of a house remains a distant, unaffordable dream for most young adults – which will make dependency on parents more common.

More parents are sandwiched than ever before thanks to changing social trends. And more parents will be sandwiched for longer during their life in the future. Sorry to be all continental, but we really need to start talking about the issues affecting a baguette generation, not a

sandwich generation.

Ryan Shorthouse is a writer on social affairs and spokesman for Bright Blue, an organisation that campaigns for progressive policies from the Conservative Party

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