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sandwich generation

noun [countable]

a generation of middle-aged people who are balancing working life with caring for both their teenage children and elderly parents

'Here's a dilemma. You're both working, raising kids and saving or paying for college. Saving for retirement. You're active in your community. Dad died and mom needs help getting around … You're the adults on-deck. Welcome to the sandwich generation.'

Portland Daily Sun 19th October 2014

As someone who has run several laps in the race through middle age, but still grapples with the delights of bringing up a young teenager, I can honestly say that the expression sandwich generation is one that particularly resonates with me, though it's not because I'm partial to a ham salad on wholemeal bread. Flippancy aside, this is an expression which a growing number of people can relate to when they find themselves caught between the demands of two of life's equally significant responsibilities – one to their children and one to their parents of advancing years.

the sandwich generation describes a group of people … balancing three commitments – their own professional lives, the needs of their children … and also the care of their elderly parents

The expression sandwich generation describes a group of people, usually between the ages of 40 and 60, who are balancing three commitments – their own professional lives, the needs of their children (usually in their teenage years), and also the care of their elderly parents, who may be widowed, unwell, or simply too advanced in years to look after themselves without support. Individuals dealing with all these responsibilities are sometimes also described as sandwich carers.

There are various sociological factors that are thought to have contributed to the growing sandwich generation, including longer life expectancy, smaller families (so there are fewer siblings to share the load) and late parenthood, meaning that a person's children are relatively young and still dependent on them at a time when their parents are running into the problems of old age.

In a slightly more light-hearted take on the challenges associated with the sandwich generation, UK author and columnist Allison Pearson recently coined the related term sandwich woman to refer to a female who finds herself in this predicament. Pearson humorously expounds the trials and tribulations of the sandwich woman through fictional character Kate Reddy, who at 49 and a half is coping with both hormonal teenagers and increasingly frail elderly parents. If you'd like to find out more about sandwich woman then check out this article which includes a fun illustration of her plight.

Background – sandwich generation

The expression sandwich generation first appeared in the late 70s, though its popularization is often associated with US journalist Carol Abaya, who has written extensively on the issue since the early 90s and helped secure the expression's entry into established dictionaries in the mid 2000s. Abaya even coined the related expression club sandwich generation to describe either people 50 and over with adult children, grandchildren and aging parents, or people in their 30s or 40s who have young children, aging parents and grandparents (the expression is an apt extension of the sandwich metaphor since a club sandwich is a 'thicker' version with 'three' slices of bread).

The word generation has featured in a number of new compounds during the last twenty years or so. Examples include the series of demographic labels Generation X, Generation Y and Generation Z, referring to successive age groups where X relates to people born in the 50s and 60s, Y in the 70s to mid 90s, and Z in the 90s to the present day. As a result of socio-economic issues we've also latterly seen terms such as generation rent, referring to people born in the 80s onwards who are more likely to rent their homes because they can no longer afford to buy them, and the lost generation, describing young people who in a period of recession have been unable to acquire the skills and employment opportunities they need.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 18th November 2014.

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