Sandwich generation left holding the bag


The columns above, from left, show the percentage of respondents who currently care for children or elderly family members, those who expect to do so in 5 to 10 years, and those who have planned financially for the situation. Courtesy PNC Bank 

A new report shows as the life spans of the elderly lengthen and adult children are living at home longer, the generation in the middle is being financially squeezed.

PNC Financial Services Group last month published findings from The Sandwich Generation Survey, which it commissioned to query Americans between the ages of 36 and 60 who might find themselves caught between financially supporting children and elderly families. They are commonly known as the sandwich generation.

Nearly 4 in 10 (38 percent) of survey respondents said they do not have an emergency savings fund, and one-third have less than $25,000 saved for retirement.

The demographic is “acutely aware” of its financial shortcomings, according to PNC, but instead of that knowledge spurring action, respondents said the stress of the responsibility is so overwhelming they are remaining unprepared for the future.

“Our survey revealed that many members (29 percent) of the sandwich generation would prefer to bury their heads in the sand and avoid thinking about their finances,” said Rich Ramassini, director of strategy and sales performance for PNC Investments.

Jessica Murphy is a certified financial planner, senior vice president and market leader over Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and the lakeshore at PNC Bank Wealth Management.

Murphy said what people don’t realize is “being informed and being prepared by having a financial plan (will) not only reduce stress but also contribute to the financial success of individuals and families that might find themselves in that particular situation of caring for a family member below and above, generationally.”

According to the survey, 61 percent of respondents without a plan reported feeling stressed about their finances, compared to 24 percent of those with a written plan.

Similarly, 44 percent who do not have any type of financial plan say they would rather not think about their financial responsibilities. Less than one-fifth (17 percent) who have a written plan feel the same way.

“A financial plan will not only help you document what you need to do in order to achieve your goals, but now we also know that it can influence people’s emotions and confidence,” Ramassini said.

Members of the sandwich generation reported in the survey they have been unable to build robust emergency savings and retirement account balances primarily because of the strain of financially supporting other family members — a task for which they did not plan.

Thirty-eight percent of survey respondents reported they do not have an emergency fund, and another 31 percent said they have an emergency fund that would last less than six months.  

More than half of respondents reported they have $100,000 or less saved for retirement. The average retirement account balance among the sandwich generation surveyed is $170,346.

AARP estimates seniors retiring today would need about $1 million to $1.5 million — or an annual income of $33,000 to $50,000 — to retire comfortably at the current cost of living.

A recent CNBC report said those planning to retire farther down the road need to save far more to account for the inflation, taxes and market fluctuations of the future.

Other findings

Eight percent of respondents reported they currently have financial responsibilities for both parents/elderly family members and children of any age; 45 percent are financially supporting either children or parents/family members; and 47 percent do not have any financial obligations to other family members.

Twenty-five percent support children under the age of 18, 17 percent support adult children over the age of 18 and 16 percent are currently caring for parents or elderly family members, though almost double (32 percent) expect to care for an elderly family member within the next five to 10 years. However, only 1 in 5 respondents has planned for those expenses.

The survey indicated respondents who support parents or elderly family members are more stressed than those who are supporting children under age 18, though respondents with multigenerational financial responsibilities report being twice as overwhelmed as those who do not have financial responsibilities for children or elderly family members.

The survey asked respondents to report whether they had a financial plan — written or informal — and/or a financial adviser. Very few (16 percent) have a formal financial plan, while 51 percent indicated they have an informal plan.

Murphy said a “critical component” of avoiding the mistakes of prior generations for those entering the workforce now includes planning to care for elderly parents or adult children on top of retirement and emergency savings.

“I think the biggest component for eliminating stress and increasing a feeling of well-being is to have a solid financial plan, which includes savings, spending and an expense strategy,” she said.


The Sandwich Generation Survey was conducted online between Aug. 1-13, 2018, and was sourced from an online panel of consumers.

Participants, screened to fall between the ages of 36 and 60, reported they were actively involved in household decisions regarding the selection of financial investment, brokerage or mutual fund companies.

Boston-based market research firm Chadwick Martin Bailey designed the survey.

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