On Wednesday last week I cancelled all my teaching so I could look after my mother. Following a fall last August when she broke her hip, my mother is now disabled and my father is her full-time carer. But he had a hospital appointment that day, so I stepped in.
This doesn't sound too serious, does it? Except that my father will be 80 in April and has health problems of his own. And the rest of my family are hundreds of miles away. I have no doubt that as he gets older and she gets frailer, there will be more calls on my time. Just as when my children were young I had to organise my work around their needs, so it seems likely that eventually I will have to organise my paid work around the needs of my parents. And perhaps it will become impossible for me to do what I currently do. After all, singing teaching - particularly in schools - isn't something that can be easily combined with caring for frail elderly people.
But I am not free to become a full-time carer for elderly parents. I have a mortgage, and bills to pay. And I have dependent children. My son is 18 and my daughter 15, and both are still at school. I expect that both of them will remain in education for several years to come. And even if they are away from home while they are at college or university, the state of youth employment at the moment is such that they are likely to remain financially dependent on me for at least another 10 years.
I am one of the "sandwich generation". I am caught between the extended dependence of my children and the increasing dependence of my parents.
There are many, many people like me. When I used the phrase "the sandwich generation" recently in a conversation with office staff at one of my schools - staff who like me were middle-aged women with teenage children and elderly parents - every one of them instantly knew what I meant. The "squeezed middle" is not well-off families suffering cuts in their child benefit. No, it is people like us. Women - mainly - who must keep on working to support their children, while at the same time taking on the care of elderly relatives. And in some cases, these women also care for grandchildren so that their children can work.
It is fair to say that not all women of my generation somehow have to keep working while taking on increasing care responsibilities. There are many women whose husbands earn sufficient to enable them to give up work to care for elderly parents and/or grandchildren. But they too are part of the sandwich generation. After all, he must work to support his wife - and therefore, indirectly, the frail relatives she is caring for - and his dependent children. And she can no longer work because of the needs of frail relatives. Neither is "free". There may of course be couples in which the balance is the other way round - she is working and he is caring. I do not mean to be sexist. But in this generation, old stereotypes abound and most caring responsibilities fall on women.
The trend towards later parenthood combined with young people delaying entry to the (paid) workforce means that many middle-aged people will still have adult children living at home as they approach their own retirement. And the days are gone when adult children could be expected to bring in an income to support the household. Many of them are working for nothing, doing unpaid internships or voluntary work to build up their CVs. Many more have stayed in education, doing more and more courses of study and building up qualifications in the hope of improving their prospects of employment. And many more are working for very low wages, doing casual and part-time work, or are unemployed. Youth unemployment would be a national disgrace were it not for the fact that other countries are even worse. In fact youth unemployment is a global problem. Even emerging markets are not immune. The fact is that the world seems unable to create sufficient work to enable young people to achieve financial independence and set up their own households much before the age of 30. And even when they achieve this, many of these young people are already saddled with high levels of debt from their student years. I wonder sometimes what the future holds for our children, when we make life so very hard for them right from the start.
The exception to this is of course those young people who choose to have children while very young themselves and rely on State support for themselves and their children. One could say that these young people have simply replaced dependence on their parents with dependence on the State. And the sandwich generation still pay for them. After all, the sandwich generation are working and paying taxes, which are used to support these young people. It is all the same, really.
At the opposite end of the scale, elderly people are living much longer. But not necessarily more healthily. Many elderly people now can expect to have years of ill-health and increasing disability before they die. And the State provides little assistance with personal care. Unless those people have some form of independent means enabling them to pay for professional care, the responsibility for their day-to-day care inevitably falls on those closest to them - their spouses, and when their spouses themselves become too frail, their children.
We hear much rhetoric about the "baby boomers", how asset-rich they are and how their aquisition of wealth has made houses unaffordable for young people. And we hear many stories about young people angry about their lack of financial independence and despairing about the sheer impossibility of buying a house at current prices. To many people it seems "fair" that older people should have to support younger ones. But that burden doesn't fall on the "baby boomers". It falls on the parents of those young people, sandwiched in between the prosperous "baby boomers" and the disgruntled youth, who are paying mortgages and trying to save for their own retirements while supporting both their children and their elderly parents. But no-one talks about them. The "sandwich generation", it seems, is invisible.