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BY Brittany L. Stalsburg

How the Sandwich Generation is Managing Their Careers

By Brittany L. Stalsburg

sandwich generation

Photo credit: © yongtick / Adobe Stock

While the costs of raising children can certainly squeeze many adults in their 30s and 40s, increasingly these same adults are finding themselves responsible for the care of their own parents as well. Termed the “sandwich generation,” this group of adults are dealing with mounting stress and pressure to financially provide as caregivers to both their children and their parents. Such responsibilities often demand they make certain career decisions that allow them to juggle these roles and take care of their family, and sometimes these decisions are tough ones to make.

The Pew Research Center estimates that about one in seven middle-aged adults is providing financial support to both their parents and children, but with a rapidly aging population and an increasing life expectancy, this number is expected to rise substantially.

And it’s not just financial support that the Sandwich Generation provides, but also unpaid caregiving. The AARP estimates that 39.8 million Americans provide unpaid care to an aging relative, whether it’s an elderly parent or grandparents, and 23 millions of these Americans are also balancing their role as a family caregiver with a paid job of their own. Now throw young children into the mix, and it’s easy to see that the Sandwich Generation is really being pressed from a number of angles.

So how are members of the Sandwich Generation coping or finding an semblance of work-life balance as they’re not only responsible for their kids — but also their kids’ grandparents? Many times, they’re making career decisions that allow them to juggle competing responsibilities. Sometimes this means prioritizing certain aspects or benefits of jobs over others. John Kincaid*, a 37-year old raising two toddlers with his wife, is also providing for his retired in-laws who suffer from chronic health conditions. As he explains: “I’m the sole earner and fully financially responsible for six people. This means that it’s very important I maintain a stable and high-paying job, which I currently have as a lawyer at a large firm.”

But sometimes there are trade-offs. High-paying jobs like John's often require long hours and don’t always offer benefits like flexible work arrangements. This is the case for John, who says, “My job means I work very long hours and have little free time to spend with my family. It’s been difficult to find a job with better hours that still pays enough for me to financially support everyone. Even though I’ve wanted to change my jobs for years, I haven’t been able to.”

The demands of a family member who’s tasked with caring for children and aging parents can also pressure members of the Sandwich Generation to stay in jobs that aren’t very satisfying, or worse — involve such poor work-life balance that the situation ends up toxic or abusive. A study by Georgetown University found that a majority of employees in the U.S. reported that they were treated rudely at work at least once a week. But toxic workplaces can go well beyond a once-a-week rude remark, and can escalate to bullying and abusive personal conduct.

Many women also experience sexual harassment in the workplace. A poll conducted by Cosmopolitan found that one in three women have experienced sexual harassment at work at some point in their career. But reporting such abusive (and sometimes illegal) behaviors often carries consequences that many employees, and especially members of the Sandwich Generation who can’t afford to lose their jobs, aren’t willing to face. Many employees will suffer in silence rather than report the behavior for fear of losing their job, and the income that support their children and parents.

Some employers are recognizing the rising demands on the Sandwich Generation and are responding accordingly. Policies like paid family leave and flexible work arrangements are increasingly being offered to employees. And some Americans are choosing jobs and careers based on their ability to meet their personal responsibilities at home.

Suzanne Atencio, 41, gave birth to her daughter the same year her father’s health took a turn. When Suzanne’s daughter was only a month old, her father was hospitalized repeatedly for a chronic health conditions he had struggled with for years. But Suzanne was able to take a significant amount of paid time off not only for maternity leave but to care for her father as well. Her company offer six weeks of paid leave to care for a sick relative, and this was a benefit Suzanne specifically looked for when applying to jobs.

“With my father’s ongoing health conditions, I knew there might be a time I needed to take time off to be there with him. I’m really lucky that my company is so supportive and really accommodated my needs without question.”

Sadly, Suzanne’s father passed away when her daughter was just three months old. Her company also offered a bereavement leave policy that allowed her to take 3 days off to specifically grieve and be with her family. She was also allowed to take vacation and personal time to prepare for and plan the funeral.

As more and more Americans become members of the Sandwich Generation, some workplace advocates are calling on the government to provide solutions for what some are calling the caregiving crisis. Because caregiving assistance and long-term care is so expensive, many Americans are doing it themselves, even taking time off from work or switching to part-time, flexible jobs so they can be there for their elderly parent or a sick relative.

While some states do offer some financial support for caregivers, some say these programs need to bolstered and strengthened so that more people can access these resources. The Family Caregiver Alliance, a community-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to address the needs of families providing care for loved ones, advocates for legislation that would provide more financially support and elder care resources to Americans caring for aging relatives. The consequences of failing to properly support a family member who serves as a caregivers are dire—as many of these Americans are forced to cut back on their work hours or opt out of the workforce altogether, the economy suffers considerably as more and more American families struggle to get by.

In addition to providing direct benefits to caregivers, the government could also address the needs of the sandwich generation by mandating employers provide paid family leave. Currently, only a handful of states have paid family leave programs, though other states have legislation in the works. No one should be forced to choose between being a family caregiver and earning a paycheck, and offering paid leave would allow members of the Sandwich Generation to keep their jobs while also balancing their caregiving responsibilities.

The government could also increase childcare subsidies to help families pay for the often exorbitant costs of childcare. According to Care.com, nearly a third of American families report spending at least 20% of their household income on childcare. Across all 50 states, the average cost of center-based day care was $10,468 annually in 2016, but prices could range from $6,605 to a high of $20,209, depending on the state.

Unsurprisingly, the high costs associated with childcare are heavily influencing the career decisions of American families. A survey conducted by Care.com found almost two-thirds say childcare has affected their career decisions, and 23% have had to downshift to a part-time job or opt out of the workforce altogether to care for their kids. For members of the Sandwich Generation, dealing with childcare adds a significant financial burden that often drives families deeper into financial insecurity. The government could help alleviate this financial stress by increasing funding for affordable childcare options.

But no matter what the government does, it’s clear that the Sandwich Generation will only increase in size as the American population continues to age. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that the 65 and older population will more than double by 2060, from 46 million today to 98 million 40 years from now.

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Dr. Brittany L. Stalsburg is a researcher, strategist, and professional writer. She is the owner of BLS Research & Consulting and works with progressive organizations and companies and is a champion of women's issues in the workplace.

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