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The Sandwich Situation

In both developed and developing countries, birth rates are generally dropping, life expectancies are increasing, the average age at which women have their first child is also increasing, and the needs of the “sandwich generation”—those people concurrently caring for children and elderly parents—are of growing interest to marketers. So when we planned our corporate research agenda at the start of 2009, we thought some exploration as to how this squeezed demographic was thinking and coping could be useful, especially to our clients in financial services, health care, and insurance.

The personal relevance of this research was also inescapable. As we were beginning, it just so happened that I—a married 55-year-old mother of two who uses hair dye almost as liberally as I use coffee—was moving my elderly mother up from Florida to live closer to us, and also helping out my New York City-dwelling daughter with the security deposit and last month’s rent on her new apartment. And Katrina, my 26-year-old colleague in this research, was spending her weekends completing climbs to the summits of New Hampshire’s White Mountains with her 73-year-old father. I was exploring the sandwich situation from the perspective of a boomer whose children were relying on me less for financial and emotional support as my recently widowed mother’s needs were increasing on both fronts. And Katrina, who was facilitating these community conversations with a compassion and wisdom that took my breath away, was exploring the same set of issues, but from the perspective of a “millennial” (a meaningless moniker, I’ve come to believe) looking to what lay ahead.

I was prepared to hear a lot of stories from our community members similar to my own— stories about financial pressures, guilt, stress, etc. What I was unprepared for was the intimacy of the disclosure about the rewards as well as the challenges of caring for elderly loved ones. Our members opened up their lives and hearts, not just to complain, but to reveal how they feel, who they care for, how they cope, what they need, and what messaging they respond to and recoil from.

Sandwich GenerationWe learned that the sandwich is not a sandwich. The “squeeze” is not exerted or experienced equally. People are not stressed because they’re caring for kids and parents; it’s because they’re caring for parents and in-laws, period. But we also learned that the “burden” carries intrinsic rewards, that caring for elderly relatives yields moral clarity, a sense of purpose, opportunities to teach and model values for their children, and moments of surprising joy. And we were overwhelmed by the unmet needs that surfaced, by the opportunity for brands across industries to provide products and services that help care for aging parents, now and in the future.

But there was also another, unanticipated outcome to this research effort. It not only caused our members to reflect on their own lives and values, but taught us as facilitators something about the power of empathetic collaboration. I brought age, experience, and immediacy to our analysis, but Kat contributed fresh vision, challenging questions, and a young but wise perspective. And as a result, the output of our work was greater than the sum of its parts.

Here at verbatim, we tend to blog a lot about how passionate and committed our community members are (true), how visionary and strategic our clients are (amen), and how powerful and transformative customer-driven insight and innovation can be (hallelujah!). But the humanity and diversity that our facilitation teams bring to our work is every bit as worthy of celebration.

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