As COVID-19 rages, millennials make up growing share of ‘sandwich generation,’ caring for kids and parents

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Paul Davidson, USA TODAY
Published 12:01 a.m. ET Nov. 18, 2020 | Updated 12:44 p.m. ET Nov. 18, 2020

Saving for your retirement is daunting for all generations, but a new study suggests it has gotten even harder for millennials.

USA TODAY

Cooper Holmes’ life is a whirlwind of family responsibilities.  

At 36, he takes care of his 3-year-old daughter while his wife works as a full-time teacher, and helps support his 76-year-old mother, who has health issues.

Holmes, who lives in Delta, Colorado, spends four hours a day running his mother’s 50-sheep farm with his daughter in tow. And since the pandemic began, he has handled her grocery shopping and other errands. He also contributes about $200 to help his mother pay the monthly bills.

From Friday through Sunday, he works the night shift at a local grocery store, stocking shelves.

“It can be very stressful,” he says. “It always feels like there’s something I need to be doing.”

Like many other millennials, Holmes is grappling with just the latest financial woe to bedevil his generation.  

Millennials, age 24 to 39, graduated from college just as the Great Recession of 2007-09 was upending the economy, setting back their careers and salaries. They took on hundreds of billions of dollars in student debt. And now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re suddenly becoming the largest contingent of the “sandwich generation,” the cohort of adults providing financial and other support to both children and elderly parents.

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The sandwich generation has to care for children and parents or in-laws. (Photo: Getty Images)

Millennials make up 39% of the sandwich generation, according to a survey of 1,000 adults conducted by Morning Consult for New York Life in late July and early August. That’s about the same share as Generation X, age 40 to 55, with millennials possibly poised to overtake that older group within the next couple of years, according to New York Life, which provided the survey results exclusively to USA TODAY.

Five years ago, Millennials made up about a quarter of all family caregivers, according to an AARP study cited by New York Life.

For years, the sandwich generation has featured middle-aged Americans — in other words, Gen Xers and baby boomers. With the oldest millennials turning 40 next year, that group already has started to age into the financially-crunched predicament as their boomer parents reach their 60s and 70s. The pandemic, however, has tipped more millennials into a juggling act of caregiving, and at younger ages.  

“The sandwich generation is becoming increasingly young,” says Jeff Beligotti, vice president and head of long-term care solutions for New York Life. “We think generally the situation with COVID has accelerated the trend.”

Forty percent of millennials are more likely to be caring for an elderly parent during the health crisis, compared with 34% of Gen Xers and 13% of Boomers, according to the survey.

“The sandwich generation is becoming increasingly young. We think generally the situation with COVID has accelerated the trend.”

Jeff Beligotti, vice president and head of long-term care solutions for New York Life

As a result, Beligotti says, “It has continued to financially squeeze the millennial generation.”

Some millennials are caring for parents who contracted COVID-19, while others are doing their grocery shopping and running other errands to ensure they remain COVID-free, Beligotti says. Those responsibilities are likely to continue even after a vaccine is available, presumably next year, and the outbreak has faded. Ninety percent of the adults surveyed expect to provide financial, housing or caregiving support beyond the pandemic.

The outbreak is taking a greater financial toll on millennials than other age groups, the New York Life study says, noting the group is also saving for a house purchase or a child’s education. Fifty-four percent of all those surveyed say they’re spending more each month to care for others in the health crisis, with 23% spending an additional $200 monthly.

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Nearly 70% of survey respondents are paying for the extra expenses out of their own budgets; 40% are contributing less to savings; 30% are setting aside less for their retirement; 27% are working more hours; 27% are drawing from emergency savings; and 18% are delaying paying other bills.

And it’s not just about money. As a result of the pandemic and caregiving duties, 43% of sandwich generation members are spending less time on rest and relaxation, 39% are getting less sleep and 37% are exercising less. the survey suggests.

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As a result of the financial burden, Holmes and his wife are contributing less to their savings, eating out twice a month, down from their previous weekly ritual, and scaling back on the painting and other classes they take at a local community college.

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