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12 January 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

The nutcracker generation

Once, grandparents helped with the babysitting. Now, they are just another unwelcome demand on mums

By Michael Durham

Do you recognise this scenario? You have come back from a winter holiday and your frail mother calls to say she’d like to come and stay for a few days. But your daughter is just starting a new school after being intolerably bullied at her previous one; your son has gone down with what looks like flu; you and your partner (both hoping for important promotions within the next few months) have a mountain of work to catch up on; and builders need to be summoned to fix the leaking roof.

You are caught in the middle, squeezed from both ends – dependent children under ten, but your own parents elderly and needy, both physically and emotionally. You are trying to spread yourself between the clamour of the rising generation and the guilt conferred by near relatives in old age, while still keeping a career and a home going (though many find it bad enough with only one partner pursuing a career). You are one of the seven million people who belong to the “nutcracker generation”.

It’s been called other things – the “sandwich generation”, for instance – but the nutcracker generation best expresses how it feels to be in the middle of conflicting inter-generational pressures. Children and old people have always been hard work – but usually, until recently, not simultaneously. Once, when children were very young, grandparents could be expected to be only in their mid-fifties and ready to help with the babysitting. By the time the grandparents needed attention – if they survived into old age at all – the kids had grown up.

Now people leave it late to have children, widening the age gap between generations. The mean age of women at the birth of their first child has gone up from 23 in 1960 to almost 30 now. The average life expectancy for men at 65 is an additional 16 years, compared to 13 years in 1980. Add to that the growing propensity for grown-up children to stay at home, and you have a problematic mix of responsibilities.

When I rang one friend who counts as a member of the nutcracker generation, she took the call on her portable handset while doing the washing-up – at least, that’s what I deduced from the clanking sounds. “The thing is,” she said, “you can’t be in two places at once.” Distance complicates the lives of nutcrackers because, unlike someone I know who built a house for his mum and dad at the bottom of his garden, many people today live a considerable distance from their parents.

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“Last year, my father was really ill,” said my friend, who has four children under nine. “It was such a dilemma. He lives more than a hundred miles away. Getting there is quite a big deal. It seemed almost impossible to leave the four children, what with school and piano lessons and homework – but, on the other hand, he needed me too. What was I to do? It was terribly sad: whatever I did felt wrong. I do worry about it happening again.”

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Her father is on the mend, but now it’s her mum who needs attention. “I feel my mum is always sending me covert messages about how other mothers – her friends – talk to their daughters every day. But with four kids of my own I just don’t have the time, the energy or the space. I phone a couple of times a week. And I feel really bad about that.” And clank – the washing-up continues.

It scarcely matters if the distance from elderly parents is 100 miles or 10,000 – the difficulties and guilt associated with not being with them remain. Another friend, with a child of seven, told me: “My husband’s mother lives in Cape Town. He’s travelled to her deathbed three times. She’s had three heart operations – each time, she just sat up afterwards and carried on. People who don’t have small children can’t appreciate the split loyalties. But these days, if you’ve got young children, you’ve got an ailing parent – it goes with the territory.”

Many grandparents seem, to put it bluntly, jealous and resentful of the time parents spend with their own children. “My mother’s always used me as an emotional dustbin,” confided one mum in her forties who has a boy of 12. “She’s in her seventies and very active, but emotionally still very needy. She’s incredibly jealous of my son. A while ago she wanted me to go on holiday with her. She called me up and said, ‘Can’t you put Dick somewhere?’ It was like she wanted to put a dog in the kennels. I refused. She spent a week with me, but all the time she kept saying, ‘I’m not used to being with children. I feel like I can’t talk to you.'”

Feminism plays an important role in these problems. Nutcracker-generation women often do not see eye to eye with their mothers. Expectations have changed – a generation ago, women were far more likely to be full-time mothers and, in due course, look after their own parents in their old age. Now women work outside the home, but mothers don’t necessarily approve.

“My wife doesn’t get on with her mum,” a friend with a boy of eight said. “Her mum is of the generation that believes it’s a daughter’s duty to look after her mother in her old age, just like she did.” There is a parallel problem for men. A number of male friends remarked that their own, elderly fathers had failed to grasp that fatherhood today calls for a lot more from dads than it used to.

Perhaps the saddest thing about the advent of the nutcracker generation is the effect on grandparenting. At a time when there are more grandparents (and great-grandparents) about than ever, fewer are able or willing to take on the traditional role. They are just too old. Or if they are fit, they are likely to be enjoying the kind of Third Age that does not accommodate noisy and demanding infants.

“My biggest regret,” said one friend, “is that my parents have been too old to enjoy their grandchildren.” Another put it the other way round: “The one thing I really, really wish is that my children could experience having a grandparent. It’s such a shame they will never have that close bond. It’s something special.”

Ann Mooney of the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the University of London is one of a handful of demographers researching all this. She recently surveyed 1,000 people who belong to what she terms the “pivot generation” – aged between 50 and retirement. Six out of ten had living parents, but one in six also had young children at home. She confirms that grandparents are often surprisingly unwilling to take on much of the burden of raising grandchildren.

“We certainly got a sense that grandparents didn’t want to get too involved,” Mooney says. “People have always provided some informal care for relatives – there’s nothing new in that. What’s different today is the demographic changes, with people living longer, more people over 60 than under 16, more people staying in work longer because of the pension crisis and the need to put children through university. In earlier decades women combined caring with a part-time job or took a career break. Not any more.

“The older generation adds to the pressure – they often say to their middle-aged children, ‘I wish you didn’t have to work.’ For a lot of people, work is a buffer from the demands of caring for children or elderly relatives. We are all doing more caring.”

Another factor is the decline of the extended family. Dr Sarah Harper, director of the Oxford Institute of Ageing, uses the term “beanpole family” to describe the modern kin group – more and longer-lived grandparents and great-grandparents, but fewer brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts. Population studies suggest almost a third of 45- to 64-year-olds have at least one parent and one dependent child. “There are more people in old age to care for and a lot of people in midlife are caring for young children, too. The caring responsibilities are being put on the shoulders of a much smaller group. We will have to . . . see if extended stepfamilies behave the same way as traditional ones. The demands of elderly parents and young children have increased and there is clearly going to be a tension between what are conceived as family duties and the practicalities of everyday life.”

The reality is that we do not, on the whole, look after our elderly parents with the same enthusiasm and commitment we apply to our children. We pay other people to do it. We feel guilty – but not too guilty. Life has handed us other cards. It’s hard on us, but hard on the old folk, too. As the nutcrackers set about raising a new generation, is it they or their parents who really feel the pinch?