Why Britain’s sandwich generation feel very tightly squeezed

3 November 2014

Life has never been particularly easy for middle-aged adults who find themselves caring for aged parents and their own children and grandchildren.

But new research from the Institute of Education (IOE) underlines why people currently in their fifties believe that they may be the most tightly squeezed sandwich generation of modern times.

Major social trends, such as rising life expectancy and the increasing number of grown-up children staying at home, are having a significant impact on the caring and family roles of people in this age group. They may also be affecting their health, wellbeing and employment, the research suggests.

Two thirds of British adults in their mid-fifties currently have some kind of caring responsibility, whether for elderly parents or in-laws, children under 18, or grandchildren, judging by the latest survey of the National Child Development Study, which is following the lives of people born in 1958.

Nearly half of all 55-year-olds now provide regular support for a parent or in-law, the survey found. The most common types of help given to elderly relatives are giving lifts (45% of carers), shopping (38%), decorating, gardening or house repairs (33%), dealing with personal affairs (29%) and cooking or providing meals (21%). Fifteen per cent of people helped their parents with washing, ironing or cleaning and 7 per cent provided help with basic personal needs.

Most help out for only a few hours each week. However, 12 per cent of those providing regular care said they spent 10 or more hours a week looking after their parents or their partner’s parents.

But, of course, many people in their mid-fifties look after younger generations too.

At age 55, almost half (45%) of the 9,100 study members surveyed had at least one child living at home and almost four in ten (38%) had at least one grandchild. Nearly six in ten grandparents (57%) reported that they looked after their grandchildren at least once a month, providing an average of 8 hours’ care a week.

“Caring responsibilities can have a significant impact on people’s lives,” the IOE researchers say. “They can, of course, be fulfilling. But our research shows that spending more than 10 hours a week caring for parents or grandchildren is associated with poorer health and self-rated quality of life.”

Typically, it is women who take on a disproportionate share of the caring responsibilities. Just over one in five (21%) women in the NCDS survey spent more than 10 hours a week caring for others — not including time taken up by looking after children living at home — compared to 14 per cent of men.

But unlike previous sandwich generations, women who are currently in their mid-fifties will soon face a new dilemma because of changes to the state pension age.

Women 10 years older than them found it easier to give up any paid job they had at 60 in order to spend more time as family carers because they could supplement any occupational pension with their state pension.

But as women who are now in their mid-fifties will not be able to draw the state pension until age 66 that option will not be available to them. Many women will therefore have to decide whether to leave paid employment before they are 66 and live on less or continue to juggle paid employment with their family caring responsibilities.

“Future research could look at how men and women in this generation will be affected by the rise in state pension age,” says Professor Alissa Goodman, director of the NCDS. “How will staying in work for longer affect their caring roles and impact upon their health?

“It will also be important to understand how caring responsibilities change as people get older, as many may provide or receive care from their partners in future years.”

Professor Goodman believes, however, that several policy priorities are already clear. “Given the increased pressures on people in their fifties, employers will need to be encouraged to adopt ‘family friendly’ working policies towards older employees,” she says. “This would make it easier for them to maintain working lives while also helping their own parents or grandchildren.

“Strong support for the mental health of people in their fifties is particularly important for those with multiple caring demands.”

Read the full briefing

Caring responsibilities in middle age: Evidence from the 1958 National Child Development Study at age 55 (PDF) will be launched at a seminar in London on Monday, November 3, that is being co-hosted by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, IOE, in collaboration with Age UK. This event forms part of the Festival of Social Science organised by the Economic and Social Research Council, which funds the NCDS.

Further information

David Budge
020 7911 5349
07881 415362

Meghan Rainsberry
020 7612 6530

Notes for editors

  1. The National Child Development Study (NCDS) is following more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week in March 1958. Since the birth survey in that year, there have been nine further surveys of the cohort members at ages 7, 11, 16, 23, 33, 42, 46, 50 and 55. The next survey is due to take place in 2018 when the cohort members will be aged 60.
  2. The NCDS age 55 survey ran from September 2013 to March 2014. More than 9,100 cohort members took part, with two thirds doing so online and the remainder by telephone. Data from the age 55 survey will be available to download from the UK Data Service in early 2015.
  3. For over 50 years, NCDS has gathered information on diverse aspects of the cohort members’ lives and has had a significant impact on policy across a wide range of areas, including education, inequality and poverty, social mobility and health. The study will continue to provide a vital source of evidence for policymakers addressing social challenges for many years to come.
  4. NCDS is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education www.cls.ioe.ac.uk/ncds
  5. The Institute of Education is a world-leading university specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. It has been shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the publications that the IOE submitted were judged to be internationally significant and over a third were judged to be ‘world leading’ www.ioe.ac.uk
  6. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. It also develops and trains the UK’s future social scientists. Its research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 the ESRC celebrates its 50th anniversary.
  7. The 12th annual Festival of Social Science takes place from 1-8 November 2014 with over 200 free events nationwide. Run by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Festival provides an opportunity for anyone to meet with some of the country’s leading social scientists and discover, discuss and debate the role that research plays in everyday life. With a whole range of creative and engaging events there’s something for everyone including businesses, charities, schools and government agencies. A full programme is available at www.esrc.ac.uk/festival. You can also join the discussion on Twitter using #esrcfestival.

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