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Sandwich Generation Experiences as the New Adult Normal

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From the AARP to politicians to the health care industry to the popular media, there is a lot of concern over the challenges that the U.S. faces taking care of an aging population and the toll it might take on individual Americans to care for their aging parents.  These concerns are amplified by the fact that, unlike many other developed countries, the U.S. does not have a strong safety net to help with elder care.  An added complication is the new reality that many Americans taking care of aging parents are also raising their own children at the same time—a phenomenon often referred to as being in the sandwich generation.  

 

As with many issues in a family studies course, this one has recently shifted from the professional realm to the personal realm for me when my own parents started having significant health problems right as my kids entered some very trying years of adolescence.  So, count me as a member of the sandwich generation.  That personal perspective helped to fine-tune my professional expertise on family processes and how what goes on within our intimate family lives offers us a way to think about the larger society and our place in it.  That is one of the core perspectives of Families Now, reminding us to think about our families as something that develops in fits and starts over long periods of time within contexts—large and small—that shape us from the outside in.  For example, multiple chapters (e.g., 6, 13, 15) in Families Now offer concrete ways to place our own experiences in such a context: 

  • More people are caught in the “sandwich” in families because of a demographic crunch in society, one created by longer life expectancy (more aging parents to care for indefinitely), a declining birth rate (fewer kids to share responsibilities for any one aging parent), and delayed age at birth (more years in which there are kids at home while parents need care).  
  • The historical economic and political marginalization of families of color in our society meant that, over time, they built stronger family and community networks of extended kin and non-kin to help people deal with the challenges of caring for aging parents (and raising children), so that social resources developed to deal with a dearth of other kinds of resources.
  • The challenges of caring for aging parents has ripple effects across families and communities, as relationships between adult siblings can fracture in conflict and the strain on adult children can trickle down into their interactions with their own children.

To build on this discussion, have your students estimate their chances of spending significant time in the sandwich generation based on their parents’ ages and different ages at which they want to become parents (if they do).  You can even have them factor in their siblings’ situations to figure out how much of that time will be shared.  Upon comparing different potential future experiences of the sandwich generation, you can lead a discussion of the ways that the government or community-based groups could help people—including, possibly, their future selves—with the challenges of caring for aging parents.

 

About the Author
Robert Crosnoe is Rapoport Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is the chair of the Department of Sociology and also holds faculty appointments in the Population Research Center and (by courtesy) Department of Psychology. Prior to coming to Texas, he received his Ph.D. in Sociology from Stanford University and completed post-doctoral fellowships at the Center for Developmental Science and Carolina Population Center, both at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Crosnoe’s research primarily focuses on family, education, and health with special attention to the experiences of children, adolescents, and young adults from socioeconomically disadvantaged and immigrant populations. This research has been funded by multiple grants from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Institute of Education Sciences, National Institute of Justice, William T. Grant Foundation, and Foundation for Child Development. It has been published in inter-disciplinary journals, such as American Educational Research Journal, American Journal of Public Health, American Sociological Review, Child Development, Demography, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Marriage and Family, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His books include Mexican Roots, American Schools: Helping Mexican Immigrant Children Succeed (Stanford University Press), Fitting In, Standing Out: Navigating the Social Challenges of High School to Get an Education (Cambridge University Press), Asset or Distraction: Physical Attractiveness and the Accumulation of Social and Human Capital from Adolescence and Young Adulthood (Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development with Rachel Gordon), Healthy Learners: A Whole Child Approach to Disparities in Early Education (Teachers College Press with Claude Bonazzo and Nina Wu), and Debating Early Child Care: The Relationship between Developmental Science and the MediaUniversity Press with Tama Leventhal). In the past, Dr. Crosnoe has been a Co-PI of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, chaired the Children and Youth Section of the American Sociological Association, served on the Governing Council of the Society for Research in Child Development, and completed a term as Deputy Editor of Journal of Marriage and Family. Currently, he is President-Elect of the Society for Research on Adolescence, Co-Director of the Interdisciplinary Collaborative on Development in Context, and serves on the board of the Council on Contemporary Families. He has been elected to the Sociological Research Association, received awards from the Society for Research in Child Development, three sections of the American Sociological Association, and the Society for Research on Human Development. He has also been awarded the Scholar Award from the William T. Grant Foundation and the Changing Faces of America’s Children fellowship from the Foundation for Child Development and completed a fellowship year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.