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Feeling squeezed in the sandwiched generation

The losers in the generation game have to play the grown-up and care for elderly parents.

Mother’s Day, 2012. A woman – let’s call her Eve – is dressing her dad. Dad has end-stage emphysema. She had rushed him into hospital in the small hours. She quite often does, what with that haematoma, this embolism and all those cancers – it’s whack-a-mole, the oncology version. There are missed calls on her phone: her 15- year-old daughter is panicking about where she is. And, like, she really needs a lift to jazz tap.

For Eve, mother to all, every day is Mother’s Day. She has the heart and stomach of a land girl but the strain is steadily doing her in. She is, like so many women in their mid-forties, one of the Sandwich Generation, so called because they are the depressed filling between ageing parents and growing children. The squeezed middle, as it were. Even the nomenclature is a downer: we started out as groovy members of Generation X, a little bit unknowable, a little bit raunchy. Our new moniker is a turkey sub. It’s hard to sex up a sarnie.

Our parents are apparently living longer (though tell that to the bereaved), but with more chronic illnesses; we apparently had children later. We made our bread and now must lie in it.

The losers in the generation game have to play the grown-up, on two counts. First, the sunny plains of infant care, of “This Little Piggy” and Postman Pat, have erupted into a stranger, more volatile geography. A landscape of eruptions, sebaceous and psychic. We remain essential, load-bearing props to our teenage children: an adult joist in this seismic business of relationships, parties, exams and growing up.

And now there’s the certain knowledge (d’uh!) that none of us is getting out of here alive. The sandwichers’ parents are no longer the providers of succour and Sunday lunch, or unstinting childcare, or oral lore on gardening, wiring a plug or the French subjunctive. They are no longer the buffer between us and the chill winds of mortality.

We fortysomethings learn a shotgun intimacy with the hospital room and its enervating blend of boredom and fear; the staging of disease, the kindness of strangers. We plough the arterial routes of the country, a caravanserai of carers, and provide £39bn worth of support to elderly parents every year. All this at a time when our own bodies are beginning their own subtle mutiny and start to run teasers and spoilers for worse to come.

The storm leaves a wrack line of exhaustion and grief, which falls largely – but not exclusively – on the heads of women. Often the same women who have put their careers on ice to raise their bonny babies, only to find a real crock at the end of the multicoloured rainbow of the child-rearing years.

The sandwich starts to squeeze just at the time when she might be exhuming that career from the deep freeze, and finding an incomplete skeleton, not fit for purpose in the modern world. As she examines the ruined mastodon of her profession, she fatally doubts she was any good in the first place, screwing in an instant herself and the economy.

Sandwichers don’t see ourselves reflected in the media, much. We look at Lena Dunham’s Girls and all that bad sex in chichi lofts, not with howls of recognition (Caitlin Moran: this is a show about all the secret things of being a woman!), but with only the vaguest recollection of an exotic place with no responsibilities (Ibiza, maybe?).

We’re too tired. Too sad. And it’s not the patriarchy that’s done for us, ma semblable, ma soeur, it’s biology. Ladies, it’s a wrap.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.