The sandwich generation is a group of middle-aged adults who care for both their aging parents and their own children. It is not a specific generation or cohort in the sense of the Greatest Generation or the Baby boomer generation, but a phenomenon that can affect anyone whose parents and children need support at the same time.
The phenomenon was recognized in the late 20th century, as changes in lifespan and a later age for childbearing meant that mothers often had small children and frail parents at the same time. For example, in the early 20th century, a woman might have her first child around age 20, when her own parents were around age 40 and not typically in need of any special care. More recently, in developed countries, women often have children closer to the age of 30, when their own parents are around age 60 and therefore at much higher risk of needing support before the grandchildren have become adults.
These "sandwiched" people become responsible for caring for their parents and their children at the same time. They may help their loved ones with daily functioning, medical services and supervision, giving medications, and aiding in financial, legal, and emotional difficulties of their loved ones as well as themselves.
Development of the concept and definition
The term sandwich generation was introduced to the social work and the gerontology communities, respectively, by Dorothy Miller and Elaine Brody in 1981. The construct refers originally to younger women in their thirties and forties who were taking care of their children, but also having to meet the needs of their parents, employers, friends, and others.
As people are living longer and children are growing up and needing continued care, the "sandwiching" is felt by both men and women who are in their fifties and sixties. The demographic could continue to change, but the idea remains the same, with recent research focusing on the concept of the senior sandwich generation.
Carol Abaya, nationally recognized as an expert on aging and elder/parent care issues in the US, categorized the different scenarios involved in being a part of the sandwich generation this way:
- Traditional sandwich generation: those sandwiched between aging parents who need care and/or help and their own children.
- Club sandwich: those in their 40s, 50s or 60s sandwiched between aging parents, adult children and grandchildren, or those in their 20s, 30s and 40s, with young children, aging parents and grandparents. It is named after the multi-layered club sandwich.
- Open-faced sandwich: anyone else involved in elder care.
Merriam-Webster officially added the term to its dictionary in July 2006.
Due to poor economy, research shows that modern American society has had substantial increase of young post-college kids who return home to live with their parents or continue living with their parents throughout college. In a study done by the Pew Research Center  in 2012, published in an article called “The Boomerang Generation,” about 29% of young adults ranging from the ages of 25–34 live with their parents. It is also becoming more acceptable; therefore, people who are in this situation are generally satisfied with their situation, which is likely to make it more common and less temporary. Now the parents of these young adults are being held responsible to care for their children longer than they expected, as well as now also being expected to assume the role of caretaker for their elderly parents.
Financial problems and statistics
On average, adults in the Sandwich Generation are spending approximately $10,000 and 1,350 hours on their parents and children combined per year. Typically, children require more money and “capital-intensive” care, while aging adults require more time and labor-intensive care.
Becoming part of the Sandwich Generation can put a huge financial burden on families. On average, 48% of adults are providing some sort of financial support to their grown children, while 27% are their primary support. Additionally, 25% are financially supporting their parents as well.
Some of the adults living in this sandwiched generation face financial problems regularly, having to support three generations at one time: their parents, their immediate family (self and spouse) and children.
Becoming a part of the Sandwich Generation can affect your financial status, your personal time, health, and career development. Although this can affect both men and women, women are typically seen by the society as the primary supporter. In other words, women are the ones who are primarily affected; men support financially while women support emotionally and physically (they bathe, dress, toilet, clean the home, etc. while the men provide the money).
Taking care of an elderly parent while caring for your own children is a very time consuming task. It can really affect your personal time; you are no longer able to do the things that you like to do, relax, sleep, etc. When all of these tasks start consuming your life, you become at risk for mental health problems. Depression and anxiety are a huge risk factor for the Sandwich Generation, especially for women who are involved. On the contrary, men, and some women, are typically at risk for loss of career development. They might be at the peak of their career and have to take a step down and lose their opportunity to be able to help care for their aging parent or growing children.
Due to these struggles, caregivers may develop strong feelings of stress, burnout, and depression. Locational aspects aside, most caregivers experience some common difficulties. Some of these difficulties include how to manage their time efficiently between children, older parent, family, work, and personal well being. Another challenge may be how to find the time to ensure a healthy marriage and a healthy self for the caregivers themselves. Caregivers are also dealing with the feelings of isolation and guilt that come along with being in this overworked role, oftentimes making the caregiver feel as if they are still not doing enough to help. These caregivers often feel like they are “being pulled in two directions” causing symptoms of depression, marriage difficulties, and other emotional and psychological issues. Many caregivers deal with older parents who are experiencing Alzheimer's and dementia, which makes daily functioning and memory very difficult for them. Caregivers also struggle to help protect the assets of those they are caring for who are no longer competent enough to do it themselves.
According to the Pew Research Center, just over one of every eight Americans aged 40 to 70 is both raising a child and caring for a parent, in addition to between seven and ten million adults caring for their aging parents from a long distance. US Census Bureau statistics indicate that the number of older Americans aged 65 or older will double by the year 2030, to over 70 million.
A Carers UK report in 2012 said that approximately 2.4 million people are combining childcare with caring for older or disabled relatives.
In India it is very common that children stay with parents in large families. Older parents gets care and emotional support. New parents in their 30-40s gets child care in terms of their parents to take care of kids.
In 1950 the Korean War resulted both in many war injuries, and in widespread poverty. Therefore, unfortunately, there was no way for survivors to prepare for old age. They had to work for economic renewal, not for private finance. As a result, Korea has the highest number of Sandwich Generation members than any other Asian country. That is why Korea still has a large family system. Especially in rural areas, large, extended families live together. As with the Sandwich Generation in other countries, the main concern in Korea is the additional cost of caring for elderly parents.
In China, it is estimated that the proportion of married couples aged 30–59, who are residing with or frequently providing transfer to both parents and children, was about 35.18%. Another study based on national survey data found that among adults aged 45–64, about one-third have at least one parent/parent-in-law and a younger grandchild. And in the sandwich generation, 58% only provide care to young grandchildren, 23% only provide care to parents or parents-in-law, 15% provide care to both generations.
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