What Does 'Sandwich Generation' Mean?

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Generational lines help define who we are and the experiences we all go through. Those in your age range are likely struggling with the same challenges, and knowing these similar issues binds communities together. One of the generations that face rising burdens is the sandwich generation. 

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While the name might sound silly, the sandwich generation refers to middle-aged adults. These are people typically in their 40s and 50s who go through many of the same experiences, most of which have to do with raising children and supporting aging parents. 

Whether you want to learn how to be a good caregiver as a member of this generation or you want to learn why this age range is so unique, keep reading. Let’s explore the ins and outs of the sandwich generation, including its significance and shared experiences. 

What Is the Sandwich Generation?

While there is some discussion amongst researchers in regards to the length of a generation, the sandwich generation refers to people in their 40s and 50s. According to Pew Research, the sandwich generation is anyone between 40 to 59 years of age. 

This is more of an age range than a generation, since people age in and out of these years. However, they’re an important social group since they share many of the same difficulties and experiences. Another term for the sandwich generation is middle-aged, though the nickname itself has its own significance. 

Why Is It Called the Sandwich Generation?

While the name “sandwich generation” might sound silly, the term makes more sense in context. These are the people who are “sandwiched” between younger and older generations. They face a lot of obligations because of their age. 

Not only do they likely need to raise children who range in ages from infants to young adults, but they also are beginning to care for their aging parents. This is a literal “sandwiching” of responsibility, and it’s led to the unique attributes of this specific generation. Both younger and older people are free from these same difficulties in most cases, and these burdens are only growing. 

Though you might also call those in their 40s and 50s middle-aged adults, the “sandwich generation” sums up their experiences between young and old. They’re not quite reaching their retirement years, yet they’ve left their carefree youthfulness behind them. 

What Are Sandwich Generation Experiences and Issues?

Like all generations, the sandwich generation shares experiences and problems that help define the culture of the age. There are a lot of external pressures affecting this generation, so let’s take a look at these in more detail. 

Financial responsibility

First, these adults have a growing financial burden to carry. According to Pew Research, 47% of those in this generation have a parent 65 and over and are raising or financially supporting a child. A startling one in seven middle-aged adults is financially supporting both an aging parent and growing children. 

Why is this the case? Because younger people are less likely to find their financial footing in the current economy, they’re in need of more support for longer. Things like student loan debt, high housing costs, and low wages are holding young people back. This results in a greater burden for their middle-aged parents. 

In addition, people are living longer. We have a larger elderly population than ever before, and these individuals need increased care as they age. Ultimately, these burdens fall on the sandwich generation. They are pulled in two directions to help everyone in their life. 

Caregiving demands

Middle-aged adults are also more likely to be caregivers. Aside from financial support given to older parents, many in this generation are acting as caregivers. For older loved ones who are no longer able to take care of themselves, these middle-aged adults are there to offer support. 

Being a caregiver is a great way to help someone in need, but it’s also a source of stress. The same Pew Research study found that 31% of those in the sandwich generation always feel rushed even when they have the time for everything on their list. This is a sign that caretaking, in all of its forms, is often a burden. 

Budding career

An interesting aspect of this generation is that, despite other burdens in their family life, this is also when people are more likely to thrive in their careers. Aside from caregiving for older parents, this could be its own added stressor. 

For those who need to take on a larger role within families, they might find themselves pulling back at work. They might not be able to accept promotions, increased hours, or take on more work. There is often a push and pull between wanting more income for things like retirement and being able to balance all of one’s responsibilities. 

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Women take a leading role

Another shared experience within the sandwich generation is the role of women. While the generation is made up of both men and women who feel some of the same burdens, caregivers are more likely to be women than men. Though not necessarily fair, this likely stems from the pressure for women to be more nurturing and caring. 

In this way, women undertake a larger parental role, and they also step in as caretakers for their own aging parents. While other generations have a more equal playing field, this one definitely burdens women more for the most part. 

“Club” sandwich

Last but not least, it’s important to note that this generation isn’t exclusive for those in the 40s and 50s age range. There’s a “club” sandwich generation that reaches into other age groups as well. 

For example, someone in their thirties might have young children and also care for a disabled parent. On the other hand, someone in their retirement years might also house and financially take care of their adult children or grandchildren. The sandwich generation is a flexible idea, so it’s important not to see it in terms of black and white definitions. 

What Is the Sandwich Generation Like?

What is the sandwich generation like compared to other age groups? In many ways, these are one’s hardest working years. They’re quickly preparing for retirement, and they’re also taking care of others in their life. Here’s an overview of this generation’s characteristics:

  • Happiness: Pew Research shows that 31% of the sandwich generation is very happy while 52% is very happy. This is on par with other age groups, so these close family ties actually might improve one’s outlook on life. 
  • Hard-working: The sandwich generation isn’t afraid to work hard. They likely have career goals or family goals, and they’re not afraid to put in the work to achieve them. 
  • Sense of self-worth: By these years, the sandwich generation knows who they are. They’re confident in their sense of self and their life. 
  • Emotional support: Lastly, those in this generation are a form of emotional support for others. They often might need additional support that they don’t feel is available to them since they’re busy caring for loved ones. 

It’s important to note that generations aren’t one-size-fits-all. Some of these attributes might fit well with some in this generation, while others don’t. That’s the reality of age groups, and there needs to be some shifting as things change.

That being said, those “sandwiched” between younger children and aging parents do experience many of the same struggles. 

More Facts About the Sandwich Generation

Belonging to the sandwich generation is a unique experience, but it’s also one with a feeling of camaraderie and togetherness. Those in this generation rely upon their support system for a sense of belonging and self-worth. Let’s explore even more facts about the sandwich generation that you may not already know. 

Caregivers in this generation spend 3+ hours a day on unpaid care. 

Those who identify as caregivers within the sandwich generation spend an average of 3 hours a day on unpaid care. This is in addition to being employed full-time. On top of a 40 hour a week job, this is an additional 21 hours per week of labor. 

What exactly is unpaid care? Unpaid care includes caregiving duties for loved ones outside of a traditional professional role. This could mean caring for aging parents, helping a loved one go grocery shopping, handling a young child’s night routine, or attending doctor’s appointments with a loved one. All of these duties are important, but they’re also taxing on the generation’s mental and physical health. 

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Mothers face the most stress. 

While both men and women carry these burdens, mothers in particular feel the weight of caregiving. This isn’t distinct to the sandwich generation, but it can be felt more acutely because of the multi-generational demands. According to the american Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey, mothers between the ages of 35 and 54 have the highest levels of stress. This is amongst all population demographics. 

What’s the cause behind all of this emotional toll? Mothers in this generation report having significantly less time for themselves. Moms are likely to use their own sick and vacation days to help their own parents or children. Because they’re so focused on others, they don’t have time for their own needs. This leads to increased risks of health issues, like high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and heart disease. 

The sandwich generation needs financial support.

All of this caregiving has a big impact on the sandwich generation’s wallet. This is the generation that needs the most support with financial planning and decision-making. Though we often think of younger people needing more support with their own finances, it turns out their parents need extra help as well. 

A reported 61% of sandwich generation caregivers reported wanting access to a financial advisor as a way to reduce stress. Because these caregivers manage their childrens’ future as well as their parents’ future, they’re often involved with college planning, retirement savings, and estate planning. This is a lot to juggle, and their own savings for the future is typically overlooked. 

It’s rewarding to help others.

Finally, many in the sandwich generation find their situation rewarding. Having multigenerational connections increases emotional bonds, and it can boost the feeling of family togetherness. It turns out being an “empty nester” might not be all it's cracked up to be!

A reported 90% of adults in the United States find it emotionally rewarding to help their aging parents. Though they have more challenges, they’re ready to meet these demands to help their parents who were there for them through childhood. Better yet, because they’re proactive about helping their parents, they’re more aware of the realities of aging, long-term care, and estate planning. This means they’re more in touch with their own mortality, family ties, and legacies. 

Sandwich Generation Resources

As you can see from the facts above, being a caregiver to multiple generations can be tiring. Luckily, there are many support tools and resources to reduce this burden. It’s always okay to ask for help when you need it. 

  • Join a support group: Sometimes the best thing you can do is join a support group to connect with those in a similar situation. When you feel heard, you reduce feelings of isolation. 
  • Therapy: If you want professional support, therapy can be a good short-term or long-term option. This is a great way to find coping strategies for stress, anxiety, and worries about the future. With the rise of online therapy, it’s never been easier to find a provider. 
  • Home care: A home care agency near you provides household help and personal care to ensure your aging loved one has the care they need, even if you’re not available or need a break. 
  • Eldercare: This public service is provided by the US Administration on Aging, and it connects older adults with free or low-cost support services.
  • Next Step in Care: Created in collaboration with healthcare professionals, Next Step in Care helps caregivers create a long-term care plan for aging adults. 

Connecting with Different Age Groups

Balancing one’s roles as a member of the sandwich generation isn’t easy.  Those who care for multiple generations at once often put their own life on hold to put others first. This has led to a number of support groups for older adults focused on these shared challenges. 

Caregivers in this generation can benefit from knowing when to ask for help and planning for the future. It’s true that this generation doesn’t always have it easy, but somehow they’re masters of the balancing act. Knowing what makes the sandwich generation important helps others see them as the glue that holds everything together. Where would we be without them?


Sources:

Parker, Kim. “The Sandwich Generation.” Pew Social Trends 30 January 2013. PewSocialTrends.com.

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