Not retiring: Stuck in the middle

Over 50s are often stuck in the middle between helping adult children and caring for their own parents.

Senior father in wheelchair and young son on a walk.


Many over 50s are still parenting teenagers or contemplating them going off to university. There have, in the past, been lots of articles written about so-called empty next syndrome, but it doesn’t seem to be so clear-cut these days. Even when they go off to university young people tend to come back afterwards and it is hard to predict whether they will be able to afford to rent anywhere in their first years post-university. Many seem kind of lost, saddled with debt from their student years and priced out of the future.

I was at a meeting this week on the gender pension gap and there was a lot of talk about encouraging people to save, but many people just don’t have the ability to save these days. Surveys on our sister site,, shows significant numbers of mums have cut back on pensions payments due to the cost of living crisis. That’s a very rational choice: when you are struggling to make it to the end of the week you’re not really in a position to think about the long-term future. And the evidence suggests that women are more likely to be in this position and to foreground immediate family needs.

But the problem may be worse for the next generation. Many young people these days carry a lot of debt. Should they start a family they will go into further debt because maternity and paternity pay is so low that many can’t afford to stay off work for long. Then they face high childcare bills. Family life begins with debt, unless you’re lucky enough to have an employer who enhances parental leave and most don’t. It is hardly encouraging, but if young people don’t have children, who will keep the economy going and who will care for older people?

At the moment it is often those in the middle – neither young nor very old – who are supporting those above and below them on the life ladder. We hear a lot about the cost of childcare, but parents are not only subsidising children while they are young, but also when they leave school and try to get their adult lives on track. It may be more expensive having adult children than preschoolers. One way older parents have traditionally helped their adult children out, particularly mums, is by doing childcare for their grandchildren, but that is increasingly difficult as the pension age rises and the cost of living crisis means people can’t afford to reduce their hours if they are on lower incomes. Many older people are not working due to health reasons, which also impacts on their ability to care for their grandchildren. Everything has a knock-on impact.

The argument for a universal basic income seems to be mounting in the face of all of these issues. For older people, that would provide some options if they can’t work or can only work reduced hours. It would mean people could be freed up to help each other more. What is clear is that the current outlook is challenging for younger people and many are more reliant on their parents than in the past and that parents are facing all sorts of demands from helping their adult children out financially to looking after elderly parents. They are stuck in the middle and being stretched from all sides. Sometimes the carers need some looking after too.

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