Publisher's Perspective

Back in the Middle Ages, it was rare for people in their 40s and 50s to be supporting both children and parents. They had children at younger ages, the kids were put to work at a very young age and as for their parents . . . well, life expectancies were short.


But that’s not the case with middle age today. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 47 percent of people in that stage of life have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or are supporting a child who is age 18 or older. About a seventh of them are providing financial support to both a parent and a child.

"The financial burdens associated with caring for multiple generations of family members are mounting. The increased pressure is coming primarily from grown children rather than aging parents," said the report.

That’s because compared with the past, more younger people are having trouble finding meaningful employment, even with a college degree. In 2012, 27 percent of the 40-59 set were the primary source of support for a child age 18 and older and another 21 percent were providing some support. In comparison, the numbers were 20 and 22 percent, respectively, in 2005.

Meanwhile, the percentage providing financial support to a parent also has increased, although only from 19 to 21 percent in total.

Those numbers must be higher today, given how much stronger the economy was in 2005.

"Having an aging parent while still raising or supporting one’s own children presents certain challenges not faced by other adults—caregiving and financial and emotional support to name just a few," it said. Sandwiched people tend to feel more time-stressed and live less comfortably than those not making commitments in both directions.

Federal employees, of course, are subject to these same stresses. With an average age of around 47—much higher than the American workforce as a whole—the typical federal employee is squarely in the middle of this picture. About three out of five feds are in that age range.

The benefits package does help, at least a little. Federal employees can keep their children on their health insurance benefits until the child turns 26 in most cases, and longer in some cases. There are children’s survivor benefits payable under roughly the same rules should the employee die at that point.

On the other end, the government makes certain placement and advisory services available to employees with elder care responsibilities. And parents of employees are eligible to enroll in the Federal Long Term Care Insurance program. While there is no government contribution toward the cost, such insurance does protect against the potentially ruinous financial drain of extended nursing home stays or other assisted living care.

And employees are eligible to set up tax-favored flexible spending accounts to pay for up to $5,000 toward dependent care annually for either dependent children. That also applies to dependent parents who need adult day care. Parents can’t be put on an FEHB plan, however, even if they are dependents.

The prospect of a defined benefit annuity in the future, along with continued health insurance coverage subsidized by the government at the same rate as for active employees, also is a valuable cushion. If you don’t believe that, ask the majority of private sector workers, who won’t get such benefits. In particular ask workers in the auto, airline, telephone and other industries whose employers initially promised such benefits and then cut back or eliminated them in recent years.

Still, many federal employees are facing significant financial demands just at the time when they are in their peak earning years and should be stashing away as much as possible for retirement, through the Thrift Savings Plan and other investment vehicles. Meeting all those goals will require sandwich people, to use another old term, to come up with a lot of lettuce.