Who are the ‘sandwich generation’ of people caring for parents while in mid-life? Anne McMunn and colleagues from the UCL Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, along with Age UK, asked whether our working lives and our relationships affect the likelihood that we will take on these roles. Their findings suggest the pool of available caregivers is likely to dwindle as work and relationships change.
Informal caring is a crucial component of social care in the UK – around seven million people care for someone in this way, and as the population ages this is expected to increase to more than 10 million by 2030. It’s been estimated that in a little more than a decade there could be a shortfall of around 160,000 such carers.
There’s been a major increase in the numbers of carers who are aged 50-64 and who are therefore likely to be working at the same time.
So we need to know what factors may make people more likely to become carers. Are those who have often been in part-time work in pole position to step in when the need arises? Are those people more likely to be in stable relationships or not? And to what extent does gender have an influence?
Are you caring for a parent?
We used data from the National Child Development Study, which follows more than 17,400 babies born in a single week in 1958 in Great Britain. They have been questioned throughout their lives on their economic, medical and social circumstances. At age 55 the participants were asked if they were caring for a parent or parent-in-law, providing shopping or transport, housework, financial support or personal care.
The responses were analysed alongside information on the participants’ work lives and relationship status.
We found significant differences between men and women when it came to the ways in which work patterns influenced their likelihood of becoming a carer. For men, those who had entered full-time work early and who had been in work for longer were the most likely group to become carers for the older generation of their family.
For women, longer periods spent in part-time employment were associated with a greater likelihood of caring for a parent at age 55.
But among both men and women, those in long marriages were more likely to be caring for parents or in-laws than those who had remained single or whose relationships had been less stable.
It’s perhaps not surprising that women who spend fewer hours in paid work are more likely to become carers for older relatives. But why would those who are married be more likely to take on the role than their single siblings? Perhaps those with stable relationships are seen as being more family-minded, or perhaps those who aren’t married tend to be in less family-friendly jobs?
We might also speculate that women who have spent long periods combining paid work with childcare find it ‘makes sense’ for them to look after other relatives.
We were also surprised to find men with longer-term employment were more likely to provide care compared with men who’d spent fewer years in employment: perhaps these men are perceived within their families as successful and competent providers. And maybe those with long-term, full-time contracts are more able to get flexible working and leave entitlements which allow them to combine work and care.
We know that women are spending more time in the labour market and in full-time work at the same time as the need for family caring is increasing. We also know that fewer people are in long-term marriages as partnerships become increasingly diverse and varied.
What are the implications, then, for subsequent generations among whom family forms are more diverse and men’s and women’s working lives are more similar?
This continued ‘double burden’ has potential implications for the longer-term health and well-being of family caregivers: evidence suggests combining full-time work and adult care is linked with worse health and earlier labour-market exits for women in particular.
Our results suggest the pool of informal caregivers is likely to shrink, just as the pool of potential care recipients is set to increase. And this has important implications for the provision of adult social care in the UK.
Demand for care services is already outstripping supply. This is an important area that should be considered as social care reforms announced in 2017 are rolled out.
Life course partnership and employment trajectories and parental caregiving at age 55: prospective findings from a British Birth Cohort Study, by Anne McMunn, Rebecca Lacey and Elizabeth Webb, is published in Longitudinal and Life Course Studies
Anne McMunn and Rebecca Lacey are at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL’s Department of Epidemiology & Public Health, and Elizabeth Webb works for Age UK.