3 Secrets To Surviving The Second-Act Sandwich


Boomers are the “sandwich generation,” often caught between being caregivers to both our parents as well as to our children. We are in a perilous situation with no clear relief in sight.

Our parents are living longer thanks to miraculous medical advances, but with healthcare costs rising, even with medicare, we have a hard time keeping up. Current Dept of Health and Human Services estimates are that 70 percent of 65 year olds will likely need some kind of long-term care, and that 20 percent will need it for longer than five years. Almost 10 million adult children over 50 are caring for their aging parents. This number is three times what it was 15 years ago, according to a MetLife study of care-giving costs. The impact on our earnings is significant, with an estimated $3 trillion being channeled out of wages, pension and Social Security benefits to support our parents — about $300,000 per individual caregiver.

On the other end of the spectrum, our millennial kids are having a hard time getting launched, and need our help and support longer than we perhaps hoped/expected. This latter phenomenon is the bailiwick of psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, who defines it as a life stage he calls “emerging adulthood.” According to Arnett, emerging adults — primarily aged 18 to 25, but also as old as 30 — are in an ongoing state of life exploration that is lasting longer than similar patterns in earlier generations. Whereas the majority of us were settling into careers and long-term relationships or marriages in our early 20s, Millennials are delaying these commitments. Where our generation defined growing up in external terms through societal roles — getting a job or a career, getting married, becoming parents etc., Millennials define adulthood more internally, and conceptually: as being about making responsible choices, making independent decisions, being financially independent. They observe a more fragmented professional world, where longevity on the job seems to be a thing of the past. In this uncertain climate, it makes sense that they would take longer to figure things out, and work at growing stronger and figuring themselves out before settling into defined roles and responsibilities. The good news, according to Arnett’s research, is that Millennials believe and affirm that they are heading towards where they want to be in life — even if it’s going to take them longer to get there.

What does this “sandwich” situation look like for us? According to a study conducted last year by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave called, appropriately, “The Elephant in the Room,” over 60 percent of 50+ Boomers are contributing to the support of family members — primarily grown children (68 percent), but also to parents (16 percent) as well as grandchildren, siblings and other relatives, in what the study calls “a new era of family interdependencies.” Coming on the heels of the Great Recession, the so-called “jobless recovery,” the loss of retirement savings, and low returns on investment for the foreseeable future, this challenging state of affairs doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon.

Clearly, we need to be pro-active about all of this, and pull ourselves out of any denial we’re in regarding developing a sound financial, medical and insurance strategy to cope with current, and anticipated future scenarios. But beyond the important logistics, here are three key personal prescriptions to help us weather these challenges:

1. No Doubt About It, You’ve Got To Shout About It. We can’t keep this to ourselves. We have to create community with others in our generation who are facing the same or similar situations. We can no longer adhere to the false protocols or etiquette of our parents’ generation, who felt ashamed of being in financial straits. We’ve done nothing wrong here. Whether or not we’ve saved enough for retirement, we’ve done the best we knew how to do. But it’s time to step up our game, and part of that is to rise above any squeamishness we have about who we are and how our dilemma might look to others. In community, and through sharing our experiences with others, we will learn more about how to cope with our situations, and may find ourselves in the position to help others based on what we’ve learned from our mistakes.

2. We’re Number One. We have to take care of ourselves first in order to be effective care givers to the loved ones who are relying on us. We’re going to be of no use to our parents or our kids if we are physical, mental and emotional basket cases. Are you working out at least a few times each week? The endorphins will clear your head, improve your attitude, and help bring you present so that you can stay on top of your situation. Are you practicing some form of meditation or mindfulness or contemplation? In addition to lowering your blood pressure, the philosophical perspective you get from this kind of discipline builds the strength of character you need to endure through tough times. Finally, are you giving yourself a break? Are you acknowledging yourself and prizing yourself for all that you do? Don’t play the victim. Make sure to take time out for treats, rewards and fun times — especially with those you’re caring for!

3. Become the Patriarch/Matriarch in Your Family. My father died when I was in my 20s, but my mother lived another 30 years and died when I was in my mid-50s. After she died, a family friend took me aside, and attempting sympathy, said “Well, now you’re an orphan…” I bristled at the remark and shot right back: “No, not at all: I’m actually the Patriarch.” It doesn’t have to take one or both of our parents dying to realize that if we’re the ones holding everything together, then we’ve achieved the pinnacle of familial hierarchy — we have become the patriarch or matriarch in our family. Along with that realization comes privilege and authority.

Too many of us, overwhelmed and overcome by our “sandwich” responsibilities, can find ourselves unsure, cowed, and maybe even afraid of what our parents or our kids think about us. “Am I doing a good enough job?” “I don’t want them to be upset with me.” Particularly with our parents, old patterns die hard, and we may find ourselves still playing the child to their now out-dated influence. Being a patriarch/matriarch means that the buck stops with us, and that we are stepping into a new set of shoes. Being a patriarch/matriarch means acknowledging our responsibilities and being willing to confront tough choices. It doesn’t mean being either a martyr (with the weight of the world on our shoulders) or a tyrant (imposing our will out of fear or uncertainty). It means that we exercise our loving responsibilities to the best of our abilities, and, most of all, in gratitude for the opportunity to serve our loved ones.

We probably never thought we’d be in this situation, and nothing has prepared us for it. Like the many other “firsts” that we’re experiencing in this generation, it’s another opportunity to be pioneers — however reluctantly — and use our wit and resourcefulness to come out on top.

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John Tarnoff is a career transition coach, speaker and best-selling author who helps late-career professionals transition to meaningful second-act careers beyond traditional retirement.

Following a successful career as a Hollywood film executive and tech entrepreneur, he reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology to focus on professional development and training.

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