The Future of Work & the Sandwich Generation
I’m very interested in the many ways ageing is going to impact work and its organisation. One of these ways concerns management and working time. A growing proportion of the workforce will be composed of the “Sandwich Generation” and become unable to work full-time or to work full-time without any flexibility.
If the term isn’t familiar to you, it refers to middle-aged adults who find themselves responsible for caring for both their ageing parents and their own children simultaneously. It is not tied to a specific generation but rather a phenomenon affecting individuals who have parents and children in need of support at the same time. This trend emerged in the late 20th century due to changes in lifespan and the age at which people have children. As women tend to have children later, they are often in their 30s or 40s when their parents are in their 60s and more likely to require assistance. This places the "sandwiched" generation in a caregiving role, providing support in various aspects, including daily activities, medical care, financial matters, and emotional support for both their parents and their children.
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The term "sandwich generation" was coined by Dorothy Miller and Elaine Brody in 1981. As the demographics change, the idea of balancing caregiving for multiple generations becomes a significant societal challenge, one that’s likely to affect the future of work significantly. As unpaid care work takes more space in people’s lives, employers will find themselves with fewer candidates and full-time employees.💡👇
Caregiving is already affecting work
In France, more and more people take sick leaves at work or are absent for other reasons. There’s been a 21% increase in workers’ leaves of absence compared to pre-pandemic times. In 2022, nearly one in two employees was absent at least once during the year. The causes are diverse, including mental health issues, epidemics, burnout, and working conditions, and the increase is widespread. But one of the primary causes is often overlooked: the care responsibilities that employees have.
Parents and all caregivers are directly affected when the health of their loved ones deteriorates. They must take time off to care for a sick child or be absent from work to attend a medical appointment with a dependent parent. Not only has our health, including mental health, deteriorated since the beginning of the pandemic, but the provision of various healthcare and social services by competent institutions (schools, hospitals, nursing homes, etc.) is also in crisis, both in terms of recruitment and cost. Medical deserts are multiplying, leading to longer waiting times and travel times to see a doctor. With inflation, the cost of professional care is increasing, making it more challenging to hire someone to care for children or elderly parents at home.
The cost of nursing homes is notoriously high for inadequate care. In France, it was highlighted in the best-selling book Les Fossoyeurs in 2022, which sadly shed light on elder abuse in nursing homes. As a result of faulty or unaffordable professional care, individuals step in, even when they are actively employed. They have to take days off, switch to part-time work, or be absent without notice when emergencies pile up. Some eventually give up work altogether when the accumulation of their responsibilities becomes unmanageable. In the US, the end of pandemic-era childcare funding is making the care problem even worse. It’s already completely unaffordable in New York: even upper-middle-class New Yorkers are struggling to pay. So families leave New York, which in turn makes it even harder for employers to recruit the workers they need… making professional care even more expensive. Can you see the vicious circle at play?
This vicious circle of the high cost of care is likely to have an enormous negative impact on companies' future ability to attract and retain employees. Given demographic trends, there are increasingly more caregivers in the active population. Roughly one in five workers in the US is already in this situation, and they will make up 25% of the workforce by 2030, with even more in the following decade. This figure is likely to increase even faster in older Europe.
Care responsibilities weigh particularly heavily on work when they involve both children and parents, as is the case for people in the "sandwich generation," consisting mostly of people in their forties and fifties who are squeezed between the demands of children (or teenagers) still living at home and ageing parents in need of assistance and care. This generation must constantly juggle between work and growing family responsibilities, which can lead to exhaustion. Fatigue and stress not only affect their health and daily lives but also their ability to engage in their work and remain productive.
Supporting the "sandwich generation" is key for the economy and society. We need better public services and tailored policies to make the cost of professional care affordable. More support is likely to come from employers as well, desperate to recruit and retain workers.
Caught between a rock and a hard place
For about 2 years, between 2019 and 2021, I was in that situation during my father’s long agony from lung cancer. The thing with the “sandwich” situation is that it usually lasts for much longer than other people, say colleagues at work, can tolerate. Yes, it’s been 15 months since the (late-stage) diagnosis and we’re still there. Palliative treatments extended his life by several months. Yes, it sometimes takes a long time to die. And caregivers are usually torn between the fear of death and loss and the desire for it to end. Whatever sympathy and goodwill you may first get from people at work usually fades away after a couple of months. Nobody’s patient enough.
One of the reasons we moved to Munich (from London) during Covid was because I'd be closer to my father in Berlin before he died. Alas I didn’t expect the Munich-Berlin train ride to be so long and unreliable and Covid-era limitations to make the whole thing nearly impossible.
My father would call me everyday for months while my children’s mental health was very shaky. My daughter got depressed for a whole year (my son followed suit one year later with his own long-lasting physical issues). For a couple of months during the last year, my father was angry with me, and we didn’t speak to each other. For me, this was both a source of relief and freedom, and guilt and suffering. So many mixed emotions!
For a couple of months at the end, I completely stopped writing articles (and received no revenues). My work was flexible enough that my economic prospect was not durably jeopardised. Many workers aren’t as lucky as I was to have that kind of flexibility. But I was exhausted from all the guilt I felt. When I wasn’t neglecting my children, I was neglecting my father. And vice versa. There is no such thing as “balance”.
My case is far from unique. Many people are or have been in worse situations. Among the approximately 15 million caregivers in France, only a bit more than half are employed. Sixty percent of them are women. In recent years, there has been more discussion about them, but the support systems in place fall significantly short of their actual needs. In families, complex situations can persist for years, including long-term illnesses, end-of-life care, depression, and disabilities. Unfortunately, existing support systems, while useful, are generally limited in duration.
A Growing Phenomenon
Of course, there have always been dependent children and ageing parents. What’s new is that there are more and more caregivers among the working population due to demographic, economic, and cultural changes. First, there are fewer inactive individuals (primarily women) staying at home to care for vulnerable family members. Second, there are more single-parent families. As we live longer, there are also more elderly individuals whose care falls on the shoulders of a reduced number of adults.
👉Also read: Single Mum By Default. Laetitia@Work #45
By 2030, caregivers will constitute a quarter of the active population, and this percentage could increase rapidly afterward. (If you include parents then it’s a majority of the workforce). While population ageing directly reduces the number of available workers, it also indirectly affects their availability by pushing some of those of working age into inactivity due to caregiving responsibilities. Overburdened by their double (or even triple) duties, employed caregivers are sometimes forced to switch to part-time work or even resign. 1 in 3 workers with caregiving responsibilities regularly quit their job because of it.
Of the 1,500 U.S. employees with such responsibilities surveyed by the Harvard researchers, more than 80 percent said that caregiving affected their ability to do their best work. Almost one-third of them said they’d even had to quit a job because of it. They cited the high costs of paid help, the difficulty in finding trustworthy and qualified help, and the inability to meet work obligations due to their caregiving duties.
But according to the Harvard report, companies still fail to see how workers’ so-called second job contributes to a loss of productivity and the churn of turnover for employers. “They don’t understand the economics at stake,” Fuller told HuffPost.
Therefore, there are reasons to believe that recruitment difficulties will not improve anytime soon. If you look at the projected age pyramid, you can see that the most numerous generations will be between 40 and 60 years old, "sandwiched" between fewer young individuals and larger older generations. Between 2040 and 2050, the number of working-age people will start to decrease. We are likely overestimating the ability of these "sandwiched" individuals to continue working. Not only could the overall health of the population continue to deteriorate (due to climate change, pollution, and water shortages), increasing the need for care and support, but the quality of healthcare and social services may also worsen if current trends continue.
Care professions (nurses, caregivers, childminders, nursing home staff, etc.) are among those most affected by low salaries and challenging working conditions. They are also among the professions with the highest recruitment needs, leading to high turnover rates. Dissatisfaction and mistreatment are correlated with insufficient pay and excessive workloads. When paid care is in crisis, unpaid care steps in. Many employees find themselves juggling between work and family obligations related to children and/or ageing parents. Most of them are often unaware of the support available and subject themselves to demanding schedules that lead to sick leave or even burnout, not to mention those who choose to put their careers on hold to meet their family obligations (by reducing their working hours, rejecting promotions, or resigning).
When examining the strong trends of recent years, it's clear that the mental health of children and adolescents has significantly deteriorated, and that the number of cancer cases has sharply increased. (In France, in 30 years, the number of new cases has nearly doubled). To make matters worse, there are additional logistical and material difficulties for caregivers due to the housing crisis and inflation. More problems and fewer means to solve them! In short, there is every reason to believe that in the coming years, individuals in their forties and fifties who are parents and caregivers, especially women, will be massively prevented from participating in the workforce. This could further exacerbate recruitment difficulties for companies and lead to more employee absences or departures. I seriously doubt the progress of AI will be enough to stop the problem.
Will employers step in?
Of course, businesses are not expected to solve all societal problems – childcare and elderly care should be collective issues. But it really is in their best interest to cater to the needs of the "sandwich generation". Where public structures are lacking, employers may want to play a more significant role in supporting active caregivers. Also supporting the sandwich generation is crucial for gender equality in the workplace. Indeed, it is primarily women who leave their paid jobs to take care of others. As highlighted by the 2023 Nobel Prize-winning economist Claudia Goldin, achieving a balance between work and family life should become a central element of corporate social responsibility policies.
The first challenge is identifying individuals in this "sandwich" situation. Employers consistently underestimate the number of employees in that situation:
Myth #4: Caregiving isn’t talked about much at our office, so it must not be an issue.
Many people are not comfortable sharing about their caregiving responsibilities in the workplace because they are worried about being penalized professionally. Only 56% of caregivers report that their work supervisor is even aware of their caregiving responsibilities. The Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion report, Uncovering Talent, reveals that 61% of all employees minimize their identities that make them “different” in some way, which can look like silently struggling through a frantic work week while your child’s daycare is closed due to Covid, or saying to coworkers you are going to the dentist when you are really driving your father to his chemo appointment. (Harvard Business Review)
The second problem relates to the workload. Even with all the flexibility in the world, it is sometimes impossible to combine caregiving responsibilities with an unchanged workload.
So what can employers do? First they can provide legal, psychological and logistical assistance. Then they can offer everyone more flexible (WFH) work arrangements (not just caregivers, some of whom will never tell their employers they are caregivers). They can also offer paid leaves of absence. But none of these things will be enough. Since these situations of active caregivers are expected to multiply in the future, and companies may face significant recruitment challenges, what if employers started subsidising or providing care (like nursing home and childcare places) for their employees? What about paid caregiver leaves that match parental leaves? What better way to enhance a company's CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and attractiveness as an employer?
Of course, all of this raises questions about how costs would be distributed among employers, employees, and governments. Obviously it will require convincing public authorities of the need to provide an adapted fiscal and legal framework to encourage this practice and ensure the quality of care for the elderly or disabled.
💡Check out the latest articles in French I wrote for Welcome to the Jungle: S’inquiéter sans cesse : un fardeau pour les femmes… bénéfique pour les autres, Deuil : 4 idées pour aller plus loin que la loi dans l’accompagnement de vos salariés
💡 I also wrote this article for Vives Média: Comment j’ai assumé mon cancer du sein
🎙️ The latest episodes of my Nouveau Départ podcast are: Un Nobel contre la pénalité maternelle, La place des femmes dans la santé, Humain ou IA : Qui décidera ?, Le grand retour des syndicats 🎧 (in 🇫🇷)
📹 I’ve recorded a new CORTEX video with Welcome to the Jungle : Pourquoi nos émotions nous poussent à l’erreur de jugement, and a video with Xerfi Canal and Maria Schools: Reconversion et bifurcation : savoir être atypique (in 🇫🇷)
🎙️ I recorded an episode from the Wisepreneurs podcast with Nigel Rawlins (🇦🇺) 🎧
😧 Matthew Perry and the Loneliness of Addiction, Patti Davis, The New York Times, October 2023: “No matter who it is or what substance that person is hooked on, loneliness is at its root. For whatever reason — and I have no theory as to why — there are those of us who feel isolated in this world, as if everyone else had some secret formula for getting along, for fitting in, and no one ever let us in on it. That loneliness resides deep inside us, at our core, and no matter how many people try to help us, no matter how many friends reach out, support us, show up for us, it never entirely goes away. It’s vast and shadowy and also part of who we are.”
📚 Everyone is a Luddite now, Gregory Barber, Wired, October 2023: “The rebels embraced the label. In a response posted on social media, they offered up a quick history lesson, explaining that the original Luddites, the cottage workers of the early 19th century who took hammers to mechanized looms and knitting frames, weren’t actually tech haters. They were simply citizens pushing back on an exploitative system—in their case, mass production—that threatened to swallow them whole.”
🧑💻 The Chief Ideologist of the Silicon Valley Elite Has Some Strange Ideas, Ezra Klein, October 2023: “That, in a way, is my core disagreement with Andreessen. Reactionary futurism is accelerationist in affect but decelerationist in practice. Treating so much of society with such withering contempt will not speed up a better future. It will turn people against the politics and policies of growth, just as it did before. Trust is the most essential technology of all.”
Big hug to all of you caregivers out there, sandwiched or not! 🤗 🥪
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