The Sandwiched Generation

After a few rocky decades for the American father, things – as least as I can tell in the media barometer – seem to be leveling out.  We’ve gone from the tasteless Al Bundy and Homer Simpson to more functional father-models as demonstrated in NBC’s Parenthood and ABC’s Castle.   Television commercials show fully functional Dads overseeing bedtime activities and homework, as well as managing laundry.  A recent survey found that men are taking a far greater role in grocery shopping and cooking, a byproduct of more women working, fewer employment opportunities and greater interest spurred by the Food Network (a much-watched network on our television).  But all of that’s now happening on one end of the age spectrum, fathers and kids.  As these younger men age and the kids grow, the increasing family responsibility will begin to show itself on the other end of the age spectrum as they become responsible for one or both of their parents; they will be taking on what was historically taken on by the women in American society.

The pace of my writing since the Spring – steady, but not prolific to begin with – has slowed considerably in the past few months.  Part of this can be attributed to the activities and presence of kids home from school as well as the completion of years-long backyard reclamation projects.  But what also took up considerable time was the reality that I was now officially a part of the sandwich generation; that phase in life in which I was not only responsible for the care of kids but also the care and oversight of an elderly parent.  Because I live much closer to that parent than my sister and my schedule is more flexible, the bulk of the oversight has fallen to me.  It’s an experience which I never considered having to do, but then again, most of my adult life has been spent in an alternative route that was inconceivable in my youthful ambitions.  On a societal level however, it’s also new because the onus of caring for the aging parents has fallen to the women, whether they be daughter or daughter-in-law.  The sons have typically deferred to the women because the matters fall to the purview of home management, a woman’s role and one in which most men felt utterly incompetent.  But that too, is going to have to change in several ways.

First, roughly the past three American generations – three 20 year generational spans, dating back to 1950 – have lived and been raised in the nuclear family model of parents and their immediate children, sans grandparents.  That model broke onto the American scene in the early part of the 20th century with increasing industrialization and the rapid growth of the transport network, which allowed adult children to move for a supportable wage living with the knowledge that they could more easily get back to their own aging parents if necessary.  By the 1950s, the nuclear family was the standard model and one that worked for the country as the nation’s superpower status provided expanded economic opportunity.  My own upbringing was spent four hours away from where my own parents were raised, and my experience with extended family usually consisted of a semi-annual trek to the western part of the state to listen to my mother and her three siblings semi-playfully trashtalk one another around the evening poker table.  If and when things with the grandmothers were problematic, much could be handled via local relatives, the social services network via phone and a trip westwards to tie up loose ends.  I say grandmothers because the grandfathers did what men of that time did, die at a much earlier age, early enough that I neven met either of them. 

This leads to the second point, which is the present disparity between the age of retirement and the age of death.  In 1950, when the nuclear family truly took flight, the average person retired at 67.3 years of age but the average age at death was 68.2 yearsCongratulations, here’s your watch for years of faithful service.  Now figure out who gets it because you’ve got about a half-year ’til you get to pass that l’il beauty on.  By 2000, the average person’s retirement age was 61.5 years and age at death, 77 years.  Congratulations, here’s your watch for years of faithful service.  Don’t sweat who gets it because you’ll probably have to replace it once before you die.  In three generations, we’ve gone from a retirement span of less than six months to more than 16 years – and the most recent comparable statistics for retirement age are thirteen years old – so there’s more time that the parents have to decline in their capabilities than existed in 1950.  Medicine has progressed sufficiently that people can live for prolonged periods with conditions and diseases that would have simply killed them in 1950.  Geriatrics, the final frontier…

The third point is well known, the simple economic differences between the now retiring boomers and their 1950 peers.  The elderly are not a monolithic block, but composed of separate groups with their own generational experiences and economics.  The predecessors viewed Social Security as a supplemental income to their own savings, and many of them had pension plans that didn’t have the investment timeframes facing today’s surviving pension plans.  For a relatively period of time, they were financially comfortable before disease simply swept them away.  Today’s boomers grew up consuming instead of saving and for them, Social Security is a primary source of income instead of a supplemental source. There’s now a growing awareness of the pending shortfall in the Social Security program as America ages, and there are alternatives being batted around funding solutions.  But these would be unpopular with the wealthier citizenry and given the status of power due to wholly ineffective campaign financing regulations, passage of such measures is problematic. 

This leads to the fourth point, which is the availability of resources to assist the elderly.  My parent has sufficient assets to permit living in what is comparable to a top-tier independent living community that provides for all levels of care, from independent apartments and cottages through assisted living to skilled care for end-of-live issues.  But this parent is a Depression-era child with that generation’s sensibilities of want and deprivation leading to a savings ethos to supplement the then-extant pensions.  The description of life there that I hear indicate a few problems on the horizon as their clientele dies and is replaced by younger occupants; remember that the elderly are not as monolithic as AARP would like you to believe.  Apartments now seem to be unoccupied for a longer period before being sold again, and empty apartments can now be rented to residents’ guests for short-term stays.  The food is still top-notch, but there’s an increasing use of chicken for protein and the once-monthly Prime Rib night is a memory.  Because it’s located in a rural area, the executive chef arranges for bulk purchase of greens and fruits from local farmers and seasonally, capable elderly volunteer to go to the cafeteria to help clean and prepare the produce by snapping beans or husking ears of corn. 

So the younger elders aren’t as financially prepared as their predecessors.  The burden for the increased care falls upon the social net established over the past several decades by state and federal governments with a correspondingly larger demand upon the budget; but if the budget is constrained, then the result is that there’s fewer dollars per elderly recipient.  If the budget is cut, then the result is an even fewer amount of money per elderly recipient.  With deficits running in the range of $1 Trillion annually and entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare comprising the lion’s share of that budget, is there any real doubt that there’s going to have to be a significant restructuring of the programs?  Where else will the elderly be able to turn? 

There are several things that already are – or will – come from this.

  • The average retirement age will rise, if it hasn’t already started to do so, as seniors defer retirement and remain in the workforce.  This puts pressure on the younger generations as there are fewer supportable wage jobs that permit the younger to leave their own parents’ houses and start their own households. 
  • The retirement center model, such as my parent’s, is a damaged concept as fewer elderly will be available to buy into them.  Fewer full service retirement communities will be built and those existing will have to either find new ways to deliver existing services or eliminate some of those services entirely.
  • There will be increased antagonism between the younger generations and the elderly as each begins to fight for existing resources.  I honestly don’t anticipate that the media will make an effort to downplay the hostility and some will even spur it since bad news and controversy sell.  Understand that there’s already some hard feelings by young adults because of the manner in which the Boomer generation has managed resources and parenting; this has the potential to harden those feelings even further by a considerable degree.
  • There has to be a wholesale renegotiation of the social contract between generations.  The younger have to recognize that the elderly do require assistance while the elderly have to be willing to manage on less in order to give the youngsters their own opportunities to pursue life, liberty and happiness.

 It’s common to refer to those who fought and won the Second World War as The Greatest Generation.  But each generation has it’s own demon with which to contend and this restructuring of our programs and resources – and the accompanying pain which it will incur – will be the demon for our youngsters.  My suspicion and my hope is that future generations will refer to our youngsters as The Greatest Generation, not for war, but for the sacrifices that they were forced to make to assure that all – including their foolish, selfish Boomer parents – received the care that they required. 

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