Sandwich generation stressors and how to manage them

Sandwich generation stressors and how to manage them

02.05.2024

As life expectancy rises and many young Americans struggle to find financial footing1, around one quarter of Americans now make up the “sandwich generation,” according to Pew Research Center.2

With a rising cost of living in the U.S., many Americans feel a financial pinch. But for those caring for both aging parents and children, the financial burden may come at an even greater cost.

It’s a balancing act that can take a toll on sandwiched caregivers, but there are ways to ease some of the stressors.

What is the sandwich generation?

The sandwich generation is a group of adults caught in the middle of caring for their children and their aging parents. “Sandwiched” adults may find themselves responsible for supporting both their parents and their children financially, physically or emotionally.

And the cost of this care? More than $10,0003 and 75 hours4 a month, on average. Sandwiched caregivers may have to reduce their working hours, increase their expenses, or leave a job entirely as a result of these dual responsibilities.

What is the age range for the sandwich generation?

The sandwich generation is most commonly associated with Generation X, between the ages of 40 and 59. According to the Pew Research Center, 54%5 of this age group have a living parent aged 65+ and are either raising a child younger than 18 or supporting an adult child financially. By comparison, 27% of “sandwiched” individuals are in their 30s and fewer than one-in-10 are under 30.

How many Americans are in the sandwich generation?

The sandwich generation can be tricky to quantify because of conflicting definitions and the limitations of surveys. According to the Pew Research Center, around 23% of Americans are now part of the sandwich generation. With the U.S. adult population totaling 258.3 million in 2020, we could estimate that there are roughly 59 million Americans in the sandwich generation.6

And millions more are likely to join them: The number of Americans 65 or older is projected to double7 by 2050, and many adults are opting to have children later.8

A triple threat to financial happiness

Sandwiched individuals face the challenge of taking care of at least three generations: themselves and potentially their partners, their children, and their parents. A study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that sandwich generation caregivers were twice as likely to report financial difficulty (36% vs. 17%) and more likely to report substantial emotional difficulty (44% vs. 32%) than their non-sandwiched peers.9

Read more: What’s the secret to financial happiness?

How to manage stress as a ‘sandwiched’ adult

Inflation, the pandemic, and shifting demographics have only intensified existing pressures on this cohort of adults. The role of sandwiched caregiver may come with its fair share of challenges. If you find yourself in this role, consider embracing opportunities for growth and financial empowerment. The first step is acknowledging the difficulties – a crucial move toward crafting a plan that addresses each challenge head-on.

How can sandwiched individuals help manage the stressors that come with supporting multiple generations?

Get to know your parents’ current financial situation

If you’re taking care of your parents’ finances, here are several questions to help you think through some of the considerations:

  • Do you have a life insurance policy?
  • Can you tell me where you keep your money and who has access to it?
  • Do you have a will?
  • What does your pension or retirement fund look like?
  • Do you have any debt?

Getting the answers to these questions may help you offset some of the financial burden of care.  Your parents may get overwhelmed when talking about difficult topics, such as debt, lack of a will, or long-term care planning – and you might as well. Remember to be as sensitive as possible when approaching these topics. And pace it out; you don’t have to have all these conversations at once.

Read more: How to talk to your elderly parents about finances

Discuss future financial needs with your parents

Knowing what your parents want and need in terms of future health care and end-of-life care can help lower stress in the long run because you have a detailed financial plan if needed. Plus, knowing their wishes – such as where they want to receive care – can make planning easier. Your parents may want to establish you as their power of attorney, so you have the legal authority to make decisions on their behalf in the event of a medical emergency.

Consider long-term care insurance

70% of adults who survive to age 65 will develop “severe” long-term service and support needs before they die, while 48% will receive some paid care.10 With this in mind, you may want to think about when how you would pay for professional care like a home health aide, assisted living, or nursing home, should your parents need it. Most forms of health insurance do not pay for long-term care, so appropriate insurance coverage can give you peace of mind that your parents will be taken care of.  

Talking with siblings about shared contributions

If you have siblings, be sure to maintain regular, open communication with them about how you can support your parents financially, physically, and emotionally. They may be able to help with costs, hands-on-care, or simply by spending time with your aging parents.

The role you and your siblings play in your parents’ care could also impact their estate planning. If one sibling is taking on the majority of the financial burden of caring for an aging parent, then it may be worth discussing the estate in that context.

Protect yourself with life and disability insurance

Life insurance can be a valuable part of anyone’s financial plan. It provides financially for your family in case you pass away, and it can give you the peace of mind that if you die earlier than expected, your family can be taken care of. If you die while a life insurance policy is active, life insurance can financially protect your children, spouse, or other chosen beneficiaries. Likewise, disability insurance can provide a safeguard in case you become too sick or injured to work, granting you key protections in the event you can’t earn income.

Help move adult children towards financial independence

As of 2021, only a quarter of 21-year-olds and 60% of 25-year-olds were financially independent from their parents.11 It’s no secret that today’s young Americans face a different financial landscape than their parents: Higher rates of college enrollment, a higher cost-of-living, and more expensive housing likely all play a role in the struggle to become financially independent.

Helping adult children achieve financial independence requires communicating openly, fostering financial literacy, and setting clear expectations. Try initiating honest conversations, emphasizing the importance of independence, and encouraging them to create budgets and set financial goals. Share your own personal experiences to make financial discussions relatable. Establish boundaries on financial support, gradually transitioning responsibilities to empower them to take ownership of their financial situation.

Work with your children to set SMART financial goals, which should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. If you decide to support your children financially, make a clear plan together with a time-limit and make sure it doesn’t stretch you beyond your financial means. Don’t forget to celebrate their financial achievements to reinforce positive habits! This collaborative and positive approach lays the foundation for a successful transition to financial independence.

Read more: How Americans feel about financial independence

Carve out time for self-care

When caring for everyone else, it can be hard to take care of yourself. While self-care won’t solve all the challenges that come with being a sandwich generation caregiver, it can help. Taking time to do things for yourself can offer an emotional time-out and allows you to create a balance of caring for yourself and others. Setting boundaries around your time will help you prioritize self-care. Sometimes, that might mean saying “no” to those you are caring for, to ensure you’re also caring for yourself.

Self-care can also mean prioritizing a financial plan for your own life. This is a critical step in managing your cash flow, reaching your short and long-term goals, and preparing for retirement.

Speak with a financial professional about your own retirement plan

Americans with a more detailed financial plan are about three times as likely to report greater happiness in money matters, including goal setting, debt, net worth, and financial allies. The trouble is, many don’t know where to start.

If you’re currently balancing the financial challenges that come with caring for your children and your parents, you may want to consider meeting with a financial professional to determine the best path forward for your family.

Expert support can be a cornerstone of financial wellbeing. Whether connecting with a financial professional for personalized guidance or tapping into community resources, a support network can help you effectively manage financial responsibilities.

Get the scoop on your money.

Stay current on planning, saving, and investing for life.

1 Pew Research Center. “Young adults in the U.S. are reaching key life milestones later than in the past.” May 2023.

2 Pew Research Center. “More than half of Americans in their 40s are ‘sandwiched’ between an aging parent and their own children.” April 2022.

3 YouGov. “NYT Sandwich Generation.” January 2020.

4 University of Michigan. “Sandwich generation” study shows challenges of caring for both kids and aging parents.” December 2022.

5 Pew Research Center. “More than half of Americans in their 40s are ‘sandwiched’ between an aging parent and their own children.” April 2022.

6 United States Census Bureau. “U.S. Adult Population Grew Faster Than Nation’s Total Population From 2010 to 2020.” August 2021.

7 Pew Research Center. “Family Support in Graying Societies.” May 2015.

8 CDC. “Mean Age of Mothers is on the Rise: United States, 2000–2014.” January 2016.

9 University of Michigan. “Sandwich generation” study shows challenges of caring for both kids and aging parents.” December 2022.

10 The Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "What Is the Lifetime Risk of Needing and Receiving Long-Term Services and Supports?" April 2019.

11 Pew Research Center. “Young adults in the U.S. are reaching key life milestones later than in the past.” May 2023.

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Courtney Burrell

Contributor

Courtney Burrell is a financial advisor at Empower. She coaches clients to build successful wealth building habits from mindset to successful saving and investing. She has coached and advised individuals and small business owners, analyzed financial data, formulated financial plans including cash flow, financial projections, debt management, legacy planning, tax planning, wealth management and employee benefits.

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