This just in from The New York Times: the “sandwich generation” is now also the “squeezed generation.” Visualizing this is making me feel very claustrophobic. But boy, do I get it.
The “sandwich generation” years started early for me. Just as I began having babies, my mother began losing bits of herself. Bits of memory, judgment, common sense, intuition, drive, mojo; all her legendary coping skills, honed through three marriages, six children, a decade of widowhood—all of them began to peel away like old paint. Now, it’s easy to look back and see it was the disorienting (for all of us, not just for her) beginning of her long Alzheimer’s-induced crumbling. Then, I was deep in the trees and had no way to see the forest with any clarity. I only knew I was sandwiched between the needs of young children and of my mother, who wasn’t even old—early sixties, that’s not old-old! And my own parental coping skills were forming in what felt like a funhouse mirror: no day ever the same, what with Mom’s escapades—losing the car, locking herself out—mixed in with the usual preschool zaniness: why can’t I wear my tutu to school in this snowstorm?
So: I know, I am, the sandwich-generation. I’m just not in the thick of it right now like so many of my 50-something friends are. Mom is gone. My dad and step-mom, still in their late 70s, are doing generally well. Ditto my mother-in-law, who’s 82.
Meanwhile, baby boomers have been awarded a new moniker—the “Squeezed Generation”–that makes being the ham in the sandwich sound cozy. Picture yourself squeezing the last drop of Dijonnaise out of the bottle: that’s the squeezed generation. Economists say workers in their fifties and sixties have lost more earning power, since the recession, than any other age group, with incomes now a full ten percent below what they were three years ago. They—we—are squeezing ourselves dry, post-Recession, not only to get our children through college, while retirement looms, unfunded, further and further down the road—but just to get by. If our parents need our help too, well then we’re really in trouble.
And when older boomers are laid off, things can go south very quickly, especially if they were employed in downsizing industries like manufacturing. One 62-year-old woman interviewed by the Times is working 3 part-time jobs, uninsured, crossing her fingers she’ll make it to the Medicare threshold without a major health disaster. Another, age sixty, has been looking for a job for five years since she was laid off by a mortgage company. She is convinced that prospective employees view anyone over fifty as a health risk. And she may be right: new research suggests getting laid off in your late fifties can shave three years off your life expectancy.
This may account for the creep of the word “great” in front of “recession.” For many, many Americans, this was no small-R bout of the financial flu. The Great Recession, like the Great Depression before it, has become a chronic, life-altering illness. Welcome to Generation Squeeze.
My flicker of hope is that the Great Recession will shift us away from our dog-eat-dog competitive individualism and toward generosity, sharing, caring about the common good. Community gardens, home exchange vacation sites, car-sharing—all great trends boosted, rather than broken, by recessionary times. Let’s keep the innovations coming: it’ll make us all feel a little less squeezed.
Grist has been running a great series on the sharing economy. Claire Thompson has their latest take.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.