In the past couple of years there has been the growing realisation that we’re in the middle of a new social phenomenon – the ‘sandwich generation’.

The term ‘sandwich generation’ is often used to refer to those looking after young children at the same time as caring for older parents. It can also be used much more broadly to describe a variety of multiple caring responsibilities for people in different generations. We tend to interpret it as those who combine looking after a dependent child under the age of 18 with caring for an adult.

The most recent research published by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies shows that this is becoming one of the hardest pressed generations.1

With an ageing population, and where people are starting families later, ‘sandwich caring’ responsibilities are on the rise and it is women who are more likely to face the pressure of simultaneously shouldering responsibility for young and old. A recent Carers UK study found women were four times more likely than men to have given up work due to multiple caring responsibilities.

We carried out the first in-depth survey nearly 2 years ago into the ‘sandwich generation’ looking at carers’ experiences of caring for both children and adults and found there is a growing need to address this issue.2 There are a staggering 2.4 million people sandwiched between providing support to an older adult with disabilities or chronic illnesses who have children to care for as well.

Women, caring and work

The pressures of caring are falling hardest on middle-aged women. At the age when many are at the peak of their careers, their ageing parents are also starting to need support. According to our analysis of the 2011 Census and a Carers UK/YouGov poll: 1 in 4 ‘baby-boomer’ women are now carers. This compares with 1 in 6 men of this age 50-64. The number of middle-aged (50-64) female carers has risen by 13%, to 1.2 million, in the last ten years – a sharper increase than the total carer number (11%).

According to Carers UK’s research, women particularly in their 40s-60s, are more likely to have given up work or reduced their working hours to care. The research launched by the Institute of Education also suggests that women who are 10 years older than them found it easier to give up any paid work they had at 60 in order to care for relatives because they could supplement any occupational pension with their state pension. However, as the report points out, the rise in state pension age will mean that women in their mid-fifties will not be able to draw their state pension until age 66. Many men in a similar situation have faced a dilemma of this kind.

The picture for juggling work and caring is gendered. Women aged 45-54 are more than twice as likely to have given up work to care and over four times more likely to have reduced working hours due to caring responsibilities. Our research also shows that that caring is driving middle-aged women and many men out of work – unable to access affordable replacement care services.

Every study we’ve carried out so far shows the care market is way behind the childcare market in terms of providing the sorts of care that families desperately need to juggle work and caring. And with an ever-shrinking budget for social care set against a rising ageing population, this is only going to get worse unless it is addressed by additional investment.

Anyone who exits the labour market early pays a heavy price for doing so, on average losing £15,000 per year, not including lost pension entitlements and many will face a lifetime of poverty. And it isn’t just individuals who suffer financially – it costs UK business around £3.5 billion every year in lost productivity and additional costs of recruitment and replacement activity.

The best employers are doing what they can and our recent Employers for Carers forum is looking increasingly at this issue and sharing practice about how best to support employees who also have caring responsibilities in the workplace.

There are several areas that Government alone can make a real difference as we point out in our Carers Manifesto. We need a new rights base for those who are juggling work and care – a period of paid care leave of 5-10 days to help manage care.

Carers UK’s analysis of care systems around the world finds that we’re lagging behind in workplace rights in particular. Every rise in state pension age makes this investment increasingly urgent. Government needs to reframe social care – seeing it as a vital public service that helps underpin families and keeps family members working for longer. And we need society to recognise that we are all likely to either receive or provide care at some point in our lives.