Supporting the Sandwich Generation of 2020
I remember my father’s 40th birthday well. My parents had just finished renovating our suburban house, and they decided to have a party to celebrate and use the new space. It was 1990 and I was ten years old. I spent the evening trying to keep up with my older sisters and taking sips of wine from abandoned plastic cups. There were hors d’oeuvres and an accordion player and my great-grandmother dancing in the living room with the contractor. I found out later that my parents were deep in debt in those years, but times were still good. They were mid-career and well into raising a family. My mother tells me that her 40s were the freest and best years of her life.
In 2020, I’ll have my own 40th birthday, and it will look quite different from what my parents had. If there are renovations, they’ll likely be to divide our downtown house into more rentable units. If there are children, they’ll be babies, or hoped-for babies, imagined through the lens of fertility treatments or other reproductive technologies. My parents will be older and limited in their mobility, and I’ll be entering what will likely be the most intensive caregiving decade of my life, all in the early stages of my latest job.
I’m part of a particular class and generation of women that you might have read about. We spent our 20s traveling and working abroad, going to graduate school, or obtaining professional degrees. Our careers have been complicated and personalized and have not run in a straight line. We married in our 30s, or chose to forgo marriage altogether, and we think about having children only in our late 30s or beyond. Our boomer parents supported us well up to this point, but now they’re older and will need more of our help in the many years they live post-retirement.
We’re part of the new “sandwich generation,” but we’re unlike those who have come before us, and we’ll need different forms of support for our caregiving duties in the years ahead.
An Evolving Sandwich
The term “sandwich generation,” coined in 1981 by social worker Dorothy Miller, quickly became an evocative way of addressing the overlapping social changes that were emerging as a result of people living longer and requiring more care in old age, which occurred as more women were participating in the paid labor market. Specifically, the term describes a generation of people – men and women – who are pressed between the multiple social and financial responsibilities related to caring for aging parents, while still supporting their teenage or adult children. Currently, 47% of American adults in their 40s and 50s are sandwiched between a child who they are raising and a parent who is over 65 years old. Of these middle-aged adults, 15% provide some financial support to both their parents and their children, while 38% indicate that they are primary sources of emotional support for both generations. We know that women are disproportionately impacted by the increased physical and emotional labor that defines the sandwich generation. These women have higher rates of depression and anxiety, and lower rates of career success than both their male counterparts and their female peers who are not sandwiched.
As women in the emerging sandwich generation, my contemporaries and i will have similar responsibilities to those of our mothers, but we will have to contend with heightened circumstances that elaborate upon and complicate our responsibilities. Medical advances mean that our parents will be older and will live longer lives with more chronic and debilitating conditions. At the same time, our children will be younger and more demanding of our time, attention, and financial support. Many of us will live in households in which two adults work full time. Others will be parenting on our own, solely responsible for organizing or enacting caregiving duties. The great majority of us will be dealing with jobs that are increasingly taxing and potentially more precarious, requiring 24-hour connectivity, continuous flexibility, or both at the same time.
This future is near. Dependency ratios – the relationship between people in the full-time workforce, and those who are not – are projected to rise by the year 2020, particularly in north America and Western Europe, but also in regions of East Asia. Members of a new sandwich generation will look for new kinds of support in all areas of their lives. The following are some examples of innovative products and services that may not be explicitly designed for people who are responsible for caring for two generations at the same time, but are nevertheless leading the way in taking seriously the challenges of the caregiving role and all that it entails.
Designed to help older people live independently in their homes for longer, the “Smarthome in a Box” may also help solve the sandwich generation’s problem of being in two places at once. Created by researchers at the Washington State University’s Center for Advanced Studies in Adaptive Systems (CASAS), the system contains 30 sensors that can easily be installed throughout a house to detect movement, temperature, and the opening and closing of doors. This data can be accessed remotely and can detect changes in behavioral patterns – how much a person is sleeping, how often they leave the house, how quickly or slowly they move around – to facilitate a greater understanding for elderly people, their loved ones, and their doctors of how a particular medical condition is progressing. The system also provides the possibility of creating alerts for residents – for example, to remind someone to take medication while eating, or turn off machines before leaving the house.
Created with the broad goal of making everyday banking easier, Pocopay could be leveraged to streamline and facilitate the complex financial operations of people in the sandwich generation who need to move money quickly and painlessly among their parents, children, and siblings who are sharing caregiving expenses. The Spanish-based company has brought together experts in finance, IT development, and customer engagement to create a seamless and intuitive banking experience that focuses on transferring money, splitting bills, and managing savings accounts, all in the service of sharing money or expenses across different countries and currencies.
Billed as the “reimagined home phone that connects generations,” the Ily phone could relieve people in the sandwich generation of their role as mediator in conversations between their children and parents. Ily is a free-standing Wifi enabled device that makes phone and video calls, simply and without a required login. The phone was built by New York-based tech startup Insensi, and was explicitly designed to connect children who are too young to have unsupervised access to a smartphone with their parents and grandparents, all without the intervention of a third party. The 8-inch touch screen incorporates a camera, speakers, wireless handset, and IR sensor (for sharing doodles and pictures), putting an end to the practice of passing around a smartphone or tablet to awkwardly facilitate a family video conference.
The Future is for Caregivers
These examples are not set apart as a result of their technical sophistication, nor are they worth noting for being uniquely suitable for a distinct and as-yet-unimaginable future. In fact, these products and services address basic needs that are currently well understood, and they do so in relatively simple ways. What does put these examples on the radar is their ability to anticipate a pressing reality of 2020 and beyond; that a huge number of consumers in both the near and distant future will be caregivers, many of them doing double duty as members of a new sandwich generation. Knowing what it means to deliver social, emotional, and financial support to both parents and children at the same time, and considering carefully what needs will emerge for the people who do that work, will be central to meeting the needs of an emerging population in the years ahead.