Sandwich generation caught in demographic trap

Apr 08 2004 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Employers are facing a demographic tidal wave over the coming decades as caring for elderly relatives replaces childcare as the major work / life issue for their increasingly stressed employees.

Changing demographics and an ageing population will create the first generation of employees expected to spend more years responsible for the care of ageing parents than their own children, according to a report by HR consultants Ceridian Centrefile.

This 'sandwich generation' – those who are squeezed between responsibilities for young children and elderly parents – is already a reality, it argues, and the looming impact to business will be enormous by 2020.

The future outlined in Surviving and Thriving in the Future World of Work is one in which more and more employees will find themselves sandwiched and under stress. Indeed by 2020, it predicts that the cost of absenteeism due to stress is likely to triple.

The problem is already affecting one in four employees in the United States, where productivity lost to caregiving is estimated to cost business up to $29 billion a year. By 2010 those employees are expected to cost up to $2,500 each in lost productivity, lost work time and stress-related illness.

In the UK, one in four employees – equally numbers of men and women – provide on average more than 11 hours of informal, unpaid care per week for an older parent or relative.

The potential cost of this growing burden to UK business is already evident. Official statistics show that there are already around four million carers in the UK combining work and care and many others who keep their extra responsibilities from their employers.

But by 2037, the report estimates, demographic changes mean that the number of carers could rise to 9.1 million.

"Caring responsibilities are already moving in two directions up and down the family tree – not only down to children, but up to the ageing parents of working people”, according to Ceridian’s managing director, Penny de Valk.

"In the future workplace, eldercare will be a dominant work/life issue. Employers need to include the eldercare needs of employees in their work/life strategies now or risk a generation of workers who will cost their businesses billions in lost productivity and stress."

Eldercare issues can be sudden, creating unexpected and unplanned pressures on the individual. And while the responsibility for caring tends to fall more heavily on one partner, eldercare is not just an issue for women.

By 2006, women are expected to make up more than half (56 per cent) of the workforce, suggesting that an increasing number of men will have responsibility for looking after elderly parents without a non-working partner to lend support.

And as more people choose to have children later, the future workforce may find that eldercare affects them at difficult moments in their careers – just when they have taken on more responsibility.

However the new demographic reality will also mean that employers will increase their focus on strategies designed to retain older workers; there will be a greater war for talent at the top end of the youth market

With a shrinking workforce, businesses will be radically redesigning work to unlock productivity and replacing reliance on long-hours with a model of empowerment through training and development.

Improved technology will also deliver a death-blow to presenteeism: there will be an increase in virtual working and an individual's output – rather than their attendance at an office – will be what counts.

But despite this, employers will still need to become much more accommodating of their staff's concerns, says Penny de Valk.

"Successful employers will understand that each employee comes to work every day with a head full of domestic concerns. Winning employers won’t merely speak fluent ‘flexibility’, they will make it a reality for each individual worker."