Mid-life adults in middle of generational tug-of-war

In days gone by, a large family was considered insurance against poverty in old age.

In days gone by, a large family was considered insurance against poverty in old age.

It was standard practice for siblings to club together to support aged parents, but in today's fast-paced world this is not a given, with some siblings refusing, or unable, to shoulder the burden. Fifty years ago, a child was considered independent at age 18 and had to fend for themselves financially.

Now, a child that age might just be starting university and still be totally dependent on his or her parents.

Adults in their 50s are known as "the sandwich generation" because they are stuck between elderly parents and adult children. It is an age when they should be free of responsibilities and able to enjoy life again as a couple.

Instead, they find themselves burdened with the task of taking care of aged parents and grown children. This responsibility can be a huge drain on a middle-aged couple's resources.

Even people who made provision for their retirement find that their pension is inadequate, having failed to keep up with inflation. Medical science has increased life expectancy, but at a price: spiralling health-care costs for the aged. These expenses fall on the shoulders of middle-aged children, who struggle to ensure that their own pension will be adequate when they retire.

Yet very few children can ignore their elderly parents in their hour of need, so they support them.

The responsibility of adult children involves paying for tertiary education and living expenses. While this expense may seem onerous at the time, it pays off in the long term. As the demand for more skilled and educated workers increases, children with a good education are empowered to earn nearly three times what their parents earn. Once these children secure good incomes, they and their parents together share the returns from the educational investment.

Clearly, supporting a child's education pays off in the end, but it is also essential to know when to stop this support and help a child to stand on his or her own two feet. Cutting the financial cord has to be done. In some cases it is done gradually, by a slow weaning process. In other, more resistant cases - such as when adult children have been living with parents for years - only shock treatment will work. It might seem harsh but it's a case of financial "tough love."

Caring for aged parents is more complex and "tough love" is obviously inappropriate, so support them without jeopardising your own retirement. Ideally, all siblings must share the responsibility. It's not easy being in the middle of a generational tug-of-war, but knowing where to set the boundaries will go a long way to lessening the pull.

l The writer is a director of Pioneer Financial Planning. Visit www.pioneer.co.za or e-mail help@pioneer.co.za