WE talk about those in the "sandwich generation" as if some great misfortune has befallen them.
Millions of people in their 40s and 50s are spending money on their children and they're helping out ageing parents. Their generosity extends to an average of £292 a month: that's £3505 a year, according to a survey published yesterday.
More than that, another survey has revealed, they devote time from their pressured schedules. Six million people commit around seven hours a week to help elderly relatives or friends maintain their independence, driving 100 miles a month to meet care commitments.
As a result, "sandwichers" are discovering they can't afford to enjoy the lifestyle they anticipated would be theirs. They find they can't have holidays in the sun, a new car, a bigger house and the other luxuries they would like at their stage in life.
Now, let's pause for breath-
Are you expecting me to carry on and say how wrong this is, how it is an example of the intolerable pressure being put on the "squeezed middle" – a demographic so beloved of hand-wringing politicians eager to find examples of dysfunctional Britain?
Well, I'm not going to.
Our view of what we are and how we live is fuelled by negative commentary. It is presented as a problem that people at the peak of their earnings spend a fifth of the average national wage on caring for their family. The implication is that the state is falling short; that the sandwich generation is being short-changed. They should be enjoying their affluence instead of supporting the generations either side of them.
But this way of thinking derives from the assumption that we are a selfish society. It's part of a negative commentary about Broken Britain, a land where pensioners are abandoned, youth is lawless and feckless and those in the middle are focused on themselves.
It's not. Millions of people are looking after their own. And they're doing it willingly.
We have grown accustomed to reducing everything in life to its monetary value. We are told the elderly cost too much. We hear the NHS is financially broken-backed trying to cope with the sick. We're told that bringing up a baby will set its parents back £80,000. It's as if people existed for the sake of making or preserving money.
Now we see that when faced with a choice of helping granny or having a holiday, granny takes priority. Money remains merely a means to an end. For most of us – we can now confidently state – family comes first.
These surveys are heart lifting.
They show a strong inter-generational bond, yet all we hear about is family breakdown. They show we are a strong society. Yes, there is a leisured class as there is a feckless one, but for the rest, life is and always has been about the baton of work and responsibility passing down the generations.
I thought we were losing sight of the fact that money was invented to serve us not to rule us. I'm pleased to be proved wrong.
So, courtesy of a Co-op survey, we discover that 2.4 million of those who are giving their parents a helping hand still have children to look after. We should applaud them. Recognition is often the only coin people need for their good deeds. Looking after all the generations of your family is a good deed.
In May of this year a YouGov survey found that 83% of 45-60-year-olds wouldn't consider putting their parents into a care home even if they could afford to. Even more impressively, more than 80% of those aged between 18 and 34 expect to be involved in caring for an older family member.
I thought that degree of commitment was confined to countries like Italy. Again we have been doing ourselves down by underestimating our own decency.
A quarter of the sandwich generation help parents out on a daily basis to allow them to maintain independence. Seven out of 10 help a few times a month and one-sixth offer financial assistance.
For some this means buying a new washing machine or funding household repairs. Others help with food costs and household bills.
It isn't charity. It's as natural as helping children. It's a repayment for what we all received when we were children and it is therefore as normal as the turn of the day.
I suppose it constitutes part of the Big Society that David Cameron was banging on about. Not that he can lay claim to it, since it preceded him and will – hopefully – long outlast him.
The danger is that we are failing to recognise and to acknowledge what is demonstrably part of our culture. We wax lyrical about the Asian community's commitment to extended family living. We call ourselves cold-hearted by comparison. We carry about a picture of Britain with the old and infirm shoved out of sight and out of mind. But we have been making assumptions instead of looking at the facts.
It is certainly the case that dementia sufferers are frequently in residential care. But that is often the kindest solution for the family as a whole. The same is true for the victims of catastrophic strokes. And of course there are people there by choice and happily so.
There will also be a few unhappily abandoned just as some of the care I have been applauding will be delivered through gritted teeth by tired, overwrought people who would love the state to lift the task from them. Their kindnesses are spiced with resentment and are thereby devalued.
I think that would diminish if we acknowledged publicly and celebrated openly the commitment families give. Instead of saying to carers, "poor you", we'd be saying "marvellous you". Instead of feeling invisible they would feel proud.
A duty that is a given and not an option is just part and parcel of life. I've yet to hear a parent complain that their lifestyle is curtailed because they had children. The same can and should be said of having ageing parents.
The younger and the older generations enhance our lives as much as they do society. In my experience no visit was ever one-way traffic, no time spent was without its own riches – the sort money can't buy.
The sandwich generation knows this. It's time the commentators caught up.
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