What is the sandwich generation?

Wondering what the sandwich generation is? Well it’s got absolutely nothing to do with sandwiches! Rather, it refers to people who have the responsibility of looking after both older relatives and dependent children. It’s a social phenomenon that’s rapidly growing and affecting the way people live and work.

Close up of three people stacking their palms. Grandmother mother and granddaughter holding their hands together. Gesture sign of support and love, unity togetherness relative people concept


‘Sandwich generation’ is a term used to describe people who care for sick, disabled or older relatives, while simultaneously having responsibility for dependent children. The sandwich years tend to be from age 40-60, however, some people are as young as 35. Essentially, it’s the generation of people who are sandwiched between the older generation and the younger generation, both of which require a level of care.

The term was first coined by social worker, Dorothy Miller, in 1981. Originally it referred to women, who were looking after their children, while also looking after their parents. However, over the years it has been applied to people of all genders who have multiple caring responsibilities.

Sandwich generation statistics

With an ageing population and many people choosing to have children later in life, the number of sandwich carers is on the rise. In fact, the Office for National Statistics states around 3% of the UK population (which is equivalent to more than 1.3 million people) are part of the sandwich generation.

According to Carers UK, women are more likely to be sandwich carers than men – caring for both young children and elderly parents at the same time. Sometimes within a single household.

Sandwich generation and employment

Providing care for children and the elderly doesn’t necessarily prevent people from undertaking paid employment, however, sandwich generation statistics show that 6 out of 10 sandwich carers, spending at least 20 hours a week caring, are unemployed. Many simply can’t find employment with flexible hours to suit caring for all members of their family.

Statistics also show that women aged 40-60 are 4 times more likely to have to give up work for caring responsibilities than men.

Previously, women aged 60 may have found it easier to give up paid work to care for relatives because they could supplement any occupational pension with their state pension. However, the on-going rise in state pension age means that women will no longer have access to their state pension until they’re at least 66, making it more difficult for them to give up paid work for care responsibilities.

Sandwich carers’ mental health

According to the Office for National Statistics, on average 27% of sandwich carers show symptoms of mental health issues – a higher percentage than the general population (22%.)

But with employment and financial problems, a lack of social time and a risk of poor health, is it any wonder?

Sandwich carers experience a great deal of stress in their everyday lives. Many want to work but can’t. Many lose touch with their friends and have no social life. Many end up ill themselves, through lack of self-care.

It suggests that more needs to be done to support this growing population who are doing their best to keep all of the plates spinning.

How can employers help the sandwich generation?

It’s not always as simple as a person being able to give up their work to care for an elderly or sick relative and juggle the responsibility of living-at-home children. Caring doesn’t pay the bills.

The best solution for the sandwich generation UK would be access to affordable professional care services, with 1 in 4  sandwich carers claiming that additional support with the care of older or disabled relatives would make the biggest difference to them. But without dedicated government funding, this isn’t an option.

It, therefore, falls on employers to be forward-thinking and socially-responsible to help support this growing population, who require flexible working around family life. Offering flexible hours and the opportunity to work from home is a great start

However, it could be said there is still a lack of awareness around problems associated with caring for elderly parents and relatives. Employees must speak up and ask for support, and employers must respond with policies to accommodate the altering needs of their workforce. It’s the only way to make a positive change to the outcomes of a growing sandwich generation.

Are you part of the sandwich generation?

Take a look at the workingwise Top Employers Charter to see which employers have publicly committed to employing older workers and providing the support you might need for family and health issues.

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