Sunday, 27 January 2013

The sandwich generation

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.

6 comments:

  1. "And the State provides little assistance with personal care. "

    It does provide a nice Pathway though. You have to give them that... :/

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  2. LJP: "Inflation cannot destroy real property nor the equities in these properties. But it can & does capriciously transfer the ownership of vast amounts of these equities thus unnecessarily accelerating the process by which wealth is concentrated among a smaller & smaller proportion of people. The concentration of wealth ownership among the few is inimical both to the capitalistic system & to democratic forms of government"

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  3. Yet another reason for the young not to be angry with baby boomers, along with appreciating the technological advances and so-called peace since WW2.

    But I don't think young people having children and ending up on the state necessarily do that conciously. They may be a little careless but as we all know, there is no 'best' time to have children. I am sure you didn't want to sound like the tabloid gutter press!

    But whatever, the children are not at fault and if society is to mean anything, they should be supported because the next generation is the future of the nation. Historically of course that hasn't cut much ice with governments.

    The tragedy of all unemployment (or lack of work) is that each case is a waste. There is an infinity of work to be done but in the UK, the DWP is completely dysfunctional.

    I hope your mother recovers.

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  4. The issue raised here.. . . that of youth unemployment
    is one Bill Mitchell brings up repeatedly.

    It is Bill's and my view, that the future of any country is it's
    young people, and depriving them opportunities to engage in productive
    work, handicaps them for the rest of their lives.

    Yet, this prescription from the NeoClassical Economists prevails throughout the OECD.

    It is my firm belief that NeoClassical Economists have irresponsibly
    gone from describing how modern economies work, to the role of petty martinet, forcing populations into penury in a sadistic experiment whose purpose is imposing an irrational belief system.

    What is absolutely necessary is for the citizenry to decide what kind of country they want and for the economists to demonstrate the most effective ways to achieve that.

    Regarding youth unemployment, it is my firm belief that a national service program, covering all youth between 18-24 years of age, plus early school dropouts could address this. Paying USD$500/month plus room, board, and uniforms, this program would see all young people spending their first 2 years planting trees, laying track, eradicating leafy spurge and other plant pests, zebra mussels and other animal pests, culling downed timber, driving busses, manning rural fire stations, patrolling neighborhoods, harvesting vegetables and fruit, and other menial tasks. At the end of the second year, all would be tested with the top 15% sent to university on full scholarship, the next 15% sent to technical schools on full scholarship, the next 25% inducted into apprenticeships, the next 20% put into diploma programs, and the rest continuing at manual labor.
    Upon completion of national service, all graduates are eligible for further training under a program similar to the GI Bill, all graduates meet the minimum qualifications to receive Social Security benifits at the bottom tier, and all graduates are considered eligible to form an independent household.

    INDY

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  5. I am experiencing very much the same dilemmas with aging parents (two sets) and even very ageing grandparents (the two mothers) who are all becoming dependent on our care. My partner and I are also just starting to save for our two children's futures - as it is now inevitable that we have to give them a helping hand. Pensions don't come into it for our generation - as job security is low, contract work or self employment is the norm and we simply cannot justify risking a pension when their future worth may not be proven.
    As a working professional woman with a working professional partner, we are both supporting the emotional and financial burdens. We have realised that the government supports the idea of increased household debt inherently because you both need to work to afford a mortgage. As a working woman you are paying tax on income and paying for nursery fees for the nursery workers to be employed who are taxed again. You may receive tax credits, but this is an complex burocratic system to navigate and seemingly arbitrarily based on number of hours worked on average week.
    Even with two fully qualified professionals in our household we are feeling like the very squeezed sandwich generation with mortgage and increasing costs of food and household bills..
    For families mortgages pose the greatest problem - they are mostly now on shorter time frames and have much higher fees. Every time you remortgage the lender re-assesses your income levels and only lends accordingly, hence if your salary drops you have to remain on a SVR rather than a lower fixed or tracker rate - which is a nightmare for working mothers who go part time. We have as many overheads and demands on our time as we can possibly manage.
    I can not see how this can stretch any further for the next generation who will need more money to service higher house prices.
    It seems that the government is missing the point of our society. We need to be helping the next generation rather than exploiting those who are financially weaker. Students and young people will start off with a debt, will probably need to rent and hence won't save up for pensions or their successive futures etc....it is a situation I think which will snowball.
    We could be doing the opposite, which is to liberate young people from debt hence allowing them to be productive, thoughtful and evolutionary and encourage them to invest time in society. But we have to try to save for them hard - to me it is more important than my pension.

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    ReplyDelete