What Is the Sandwich Generation? Here’s What You Need to Know About This Growing Cohort

Many middle-aged adults are struggling

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An increasing number of Americans are finding themselves belonging to the “sandwich generation,” named as such because these adults are responsible for their children (either by raising kids under the age of 18 or giving financial assistance to older children) while also providing care to elderly parents. In other words, these (typically middle-aged) individuals are sandwiched between two generations and are often financially responsible to some extent for both. 

The phrase “sandwich generation” has been around for years, but it has recently taken on new importance as the associated financial strain has increased due to a growing aging population and a generation of young adults unable to achieve financial independence. If you consider yourself part of the sandwich generation, the good news is that you’re not alone. The not-so-good news? There are no easy solutions to the problem. 

Meet the Expert

Dan Egan is the Head of Behavioral Finance at Betterment, a financial advisory company that provides digital investment, retirement and cash management services. He earned his MSc from The London School of Economics and Political Science and has over a decade of experience working in economics and finance.

Who Belongs to the Sandwich Generation?

As previously mentioned, the descriptor applies to anyone who is caring for an older loved one and a younger loved one at the same time. There are a lot of different variations on this, though. For example, it could mean helping your elderly mother make up for the expenses her social security check doesn’t cover while feeding, clothing and housing your minor child. It could also mean caring for an older loved one while lending financial aid to an adult child, and perhaps even grandchildren by extension. 

There are plenty of other scenarios that fit the description, but Egan tells us that, in general, “‘sandwichees’ typically have three strong demands on their time, attention and capacity for empathy: their kids, their elderly parents and their job.” Sounds pretty stressful, right? And here’s the thing—a lot of people find themselves in this category. According to a survey done by the Pew Research Center, roughly a quarter of U.S. adults (23 percent) fall into the sandwich generation. And while the study didn’t take gender into account, it’s safe to assume that women are more often than not bearing the brunt of this burden. (You can find all the profiling data regarding race, age, and socioeconomic status here.)

How Has the Sandwich Generation Changed Over the Last Few Years?

The sandwich generation is a story as old as time (sort of), but the impact of it is growing for multiple reasons. For starters, a very significant number of adult children are still living at home. According to the Pew Research Center, a whopping 50 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 were living with one or both parents as of July 2022, compared to just 38 percent of adults in the year 2000. There are many possible reasons for this, including the economic strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the current housing shortage, but the trend is pretty clear—fewer and fewer young adults are finding it possible to live a financially independent life…and their parents are feeling the strain, too.

What’s more, people are living slightly longer (a 2.3 year increase in life expectancy over the past 20 years) and having children of their own later in life than ever before—two factors that undeniably make for a more substantial (and longer lasting) sandwich, if you will. It’s also worth noting that the sandwich generation isn’t only supplying some degree of financial aid to younger and older generations, they’re often providing emotional support, too. 

The Sandwich Generation Burden

Belonging to the sandwich generation is challenging, to say the least. “It’s a harsh double whammy—the time squeeze they find themselves in when responsibilities have gone up and support has gone down,” says Egan, noting that previous generations might have had help from grandparents to care for the kids but sandwichees typically give all the support and receive very little. 

This is very much the situation of Anna K., a mother of three living in Chicago, who spoke to us about her experience managing the responsibilities of raising children and caring for her elderly father while also working full time. “There's a ton of logistics to manage, because there are a million puzzle pieces and you have to figure out how to fit them all in,” she explains. There’s a significant emotional burden, too, which she experiences as heightened stress mingled with feelings of guilt: “It takes so much mental energy that I’m just a little more annoyed at all the little annoying things that kids do and I feel this guilt like I’m never doing enough. The stress of it feels a little bit like a dark cloud that you carry around all the time.”

Anna’s experience isn’t unique among sandwich generation members. Per the Pew Research Center, sandwich generation members are more likely to “feel rushed all the time” and only 28 percent of those who are supporting a loved one over the age of 65 report that they live comfortably, as compared to 41 percent of individuals not supporting an elderly person. 

So What Can Be Done? 

The financial and mental health implications of being in the sandwich generation amount to a social issue that warrants everyone’s attention. On a policy level, paid family leave is essential and expanding it would provide much-needed relief to members of the sandwich generation. And a lower cost of living could also ease the burden for this particular cohort (and, you know, everyone else). So one thing you can do is call your senator and demand change—here’s how

On a smaller scale, if you know someone who is in the sandwich generation, reach out and ask them what kind of support they need—a little help from a friend can go a long way. And if you yourself are in this particular situation, be kind to yourself. Mirrissa, a 50-year-old mom-of-two in California who provides support to her ailing 80-year-old parents, says that she copes with the exhaustion and stress of it all with lots of self-care (“massages, walks and baths”). Bottom line: Chances are that you or someone you know is struggling with the burden of caring for their children and their parents, and it’s up to everyone to do what they can to help because by all accounts, the sandwich generation is here to stay. 

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