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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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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.