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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Life for Sandwich-Generation Parents: “Pulled in Many Directions”

If you are a middle-aged American parent, the likelihood is strong that you belong to the sandwich generation. It is even stronger if you are married.

What’s that? You say you’re middle-aged, but you thought you were a card-holding member of Generation X, not of something labeled a “sandwich generation”?

As luck would have it, you can be both, a Gen-Xer sandwiched between the needs of your own older parents and your children. Your parents may look to you for some financial, emotional or practical support with daily living. Your children, even adult children, also count on your support.

It seems that numerous Baby Boomers also are sandwich-generation members. Notably, since older Baby Boomers can be well into their 60s, the support they provide for aged parents casts light on one important way the old-old are cared for in today’s America.

For people in their 60s and beyond who “still have a living parent, the likelihood that the parent will need caregiving is relatively high,” according to the Pew Research Center in Washington.

The Pew center released a report Jan. 30 on its new survey of the sandwich generation. Titled “The Sandwich Generation: Rising Financial Burdens for Middle-Aged Americans,” it reports the findings of a nationwide survey of American adults late in 2012.

Given “an aging population and a generation of young adults struggling to achieve financial independence,” the center concludes that “the burdens and responsibilities of middle-aged Americans are increasing.”

The adults of “the sandwich generation — that is, those who have a living parent age 65 or older and are either raising a child under age 18 or supporting a grown child — are pulled in many directions,” the Pew center said.

Seventy-one percent of sandwich-generation members are between the ages of 40 and 59, it points out. In addition, 19 percent “are younger than 40, and 10 percent are age 60 or older.”

According to the Pew center, not only do many sandwich-generation adults “provide care and financial support to their parents and their children,” but nearly 40 percent of these adults say that “both their grown children and their parents rely on them for emotional support” too.

“Married adults,” the center says, “are more likely than unmarried adults to be sandwiched between their parents and their children: Thirty-six percent of those who are married fall into the sandwich generation, compared with 13 percent of those who are unmarried.”

Furthermore, married people “are slightly more likely than those who are not married to “expect to care for an aging family member in the future, perhaps because of the presence of parents-in-law in addition to their own parents,” the Pew center notes.

Stressed, But Not Unhappy
The Pew report discusses the pressures experienced by sandwich-generation adults, along with attitudes toward their roles in the lives of their parents and their children.

“Presumably life in the sandwich generation could be a bit stressful,” says the report. After all, “having an aging parent while still raising or supporting one’s own children presents certain challenges not faced by other adults – caregiving and financial and emotional support, to name just a few.”

Finding the time to provide such support presents its own challenges. “Sandwich-generation adults are somewhat more likely than other adults to say they are often pressed for time,” the Pew report notes. Many report always feeling “rushed, even to do the things they have to do.”

Significant financial challenges also are encountered by some. “The strain of supporting multiple family members can have an impact on financial well-being,” according to the report.

Remarkably, however, the pressure does not appear to create unhappiness for most sandwich-generation members. The Pew center survey indicates “that adults in the sandwich generation are just as happy with their lives overall as are other adults.”

Underlying Convictions
How does society feel abut the roles of the sandwich generation?

“Americans believe overwhelmingly that adult children are obligated to provide financial assistance to an aging parent if needed: Seventy-five percent say this is a responsibility, 23 percent say it is not,” the Pew center observes.

That sentiment, it says, is shared by men and women, whites, blacks and Hispanics, college graduates and those with a high school education. It also “cuts across partisan and ideological lines.”

Americans as a whole are “less convinced” that parents are obligated to provide support for a grown child who needs financial help, however. Slightly more than “half of all adults” agree that “providing such assistance to a grown child is a parent’s responsibility,” the Pew center found.

But “it turns out that grown children may be more financially needy than aging parents.” The Pew report says that “one likely explanation for the increase in the prevalence of parents providing financial assistance to grown children is that the Great Recession and sluggish recovery have taken a disproportionate toll on young adults.”

Clearly, the life of the sandwich generation is challenging. The Pew center wonders whether, to some extent, this generation’s middle-aged members are “ushering in a new set of family dynamics.”

The center found, for example, that “most middle-aged parents with grown children” view their relationship with those children as “different from the relationship they had with their own parents at a comparable age. Half say the relationship is closer, while 12 percent say it’s less close,” though “37 percent say the relationship is about the same.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.