The sandwich generation has existed for decades in Singapore… but is it still the case nowadays?
If you know your memes, you should remember the one where Gordon Ramsay smushed a chef’s head between two bread pieces and had her declaring, “[I’m] an idiot sandwich”. What has that online joke got to do with this article? Well, that’s because we’re discussing a recurring phenomenon in Singapore: the sandwich generation. And nope, those that fall into this category are not idiots.
By definition, the term refers to working adults between the ages of 35 and 55 who are responsible for caring for their ageing parents, young children, and themselves. Why ‘sandwich’? The parents and children form the bread, while the middle layer consists of those working to support them. According to a 2015 letter by Ms Ang Bee Lian, director of social welfare at the Ministry of Social and Family Development, “the pressure on this generation is great because of their roles, responsibilities and obligations for care,” including financial, physical, and psychosocial aspects.
I can’t help but wonder… if my age group is considered today’s sandwich generation in Singapore, are we caught in a pickle forever? Or do we have the means to break out of that cycle?
Who makes up Singapore’s sandwich generation?
I don’t consider myself part of the sandwich generation – I lead a child-free life and do not financially support my parents. But the people I speak to are equally split on this topic. Arya Anggun, a 36-year-old project manager in an advertising agency and a mother of one, reckons she’s a sandwiched millennial, even though she doesn’t give money to her parents. When I ask her whether she’s broached the topic with her folks, she says no.
“[These] conversations don’t go well because my parents don’t want to go into detail. They usually just assure me that they’re good,” she tells me.
Meyer Ng, 36, a marketing manager in a leading homegrown furniture company, shares Arya’s sentiment. “My dad is the greatest source of our financial problems – he seems to be in denial about our situation, and discussions about our finances never seem to go well. At this point, I’m just contributing what I can, and more, if I ever get any extra income,” they elaborate.
Naomi, a 31-year-old lawyer, also faces the same problem: “Any attempt to deviate from current obligations will end up in an argument or a stalemate. Basically, [discussing financial matters are] not productive.”
At the other end of the spectrum is 35-year-old healthcare worker Natelly, who’s also a mother of one. Although she identifies as part of the sandwiched group, financial matters – especially those involving her parents – have not burdened her. Andrew, 39, an IT project manager, is in the same boat. That’s because his parents have their own savings and are not reliant on him when it comes to money.
Two Fs: Filial piety and financial responsibility
As an Asian society, there are unspoken expectations for working millennials to financially support their elderly parents, even if they’re still working. Is this practice still necessary today? Are we considered unfilial if we choose not to set aside our salaries and give them to our folks? I posed this question to my profiles, and their answers varied.
Finance assistant and parent of two, Sam Daas, 35, doesn’t consider those who don’t give money unfilial. “If you don’t have enough to support yourself, how will you support others?” he asks.
“Giving money to parents should always be an option if the child can afford it,” Arya adds. “Whatever the child earns should sustain their own life.” Naomi perceives it as a “traditional concept that may not be practical for everyone in the current economy”, while Andrew believes there are many ways to show filial piety.
Shamini Segaran, a 32-year-old accountant and mother of two, opines that while supporting your parents financially is unnecessary, you should consider it “for the love and kindness they have given us through our precious years”. Compounding financial support and filial piety together has been so deeply ingrained in Meyer when they were growing up that they “feel extremely guilty if [they] don’t give [their] parents money”. I struggled with this mentality too, until I decided to decouple the two thoughts.
According to CY Ong, 30, a financial consultant at Great Eastern, giving money to parents doesn’t mean a child is filial – the opposite holds true, too. “If parents don’t need the monthly allowance, the child should use it for their own since they have financial milestones to achieve too,” he explains. In an ideal world, balancing personal goals and ensuring your parents’ well-being is possible. But is that really viable for Singapore’s sandwich generation?
Meyer confesses they have difficulty finding the sweet spot between the two circumstances. “There’s an underlying pressure that goes unaddressed because while I understand my parents’ financial situation and my own commitments, the numbers just can’t add up. It really hits hard when I realise I won’t be able to upkeep the standard of living that they’re used to,” they bemoan.
The struggles of being in the middle layer
Compared to past generations, millennials today are getting married later. This means they’re having children in their 30s, or choosing to remain childless. I wanted to know how the parents – Sam, Arya, Shamini, and Natelly – juggle looking after their own kids while also taking care of their parents.
Natelly considers herself lucky as both her spouse and herself are working, so money’s not an issue in her household. Shamini, however, divulges she finds it “a bit difficult” to balance looking after her elderly folks and young daughters. Thus, she chooses to sacrifice her spending on social activities. While Sam agrees with Shamini, he also splurges on leisure time without his kids, though that doesn’t happen often. His trick? “Save first before spending,” he states.
Since she’s not financially supporting her parents, Arya prioritises her young son. I ask if she’s ever talked about money matters with her kid, but she hasn’t. “He’s five years old!” she laughingly tells me. “I’ll probably have the conversation with him when he’s older, in primary school.”
Besides discussing finance with the elderly, I reckon we should also broach the topic with the kids as early as possible. By getting them to understand the value of money and teaching them how to manage it, you’re preparing them to be financially literate from a young age and ensuring they don’t end up in the same cycle as your predecessors.
Children also tend to emulate what they’ve observed from their parents, so we should set a good example. Don’t feel bad for standing your ground and saying no to new purchases from time to time – it’ll really help you and your family keep your finances on track. When it comes to your standard of living, look at your expenditure periodically and decide what you can cut down or remove entirely. With the right tools and mindset, the sandwich generation in Singapore will eventually end with us.
Money, money, money – it’s not funny
Discussing financial matters and woes can affect your emotional and mental health, particularly for the sandwich generation in Singapore. I’ve witnessed (and even experienced) countless familial disputes when money comes into the picture, and it’s not a pretty sight. The initial anger and residual hurt can last for a long time. Is it the same for everyone else? Almost all my respondents replied in the affirmative.
CY claims that although money can’t buy happiness, it can still contribute to your psychological well-being. “Being stressed about finances is already an emotional impact on your mental health,” he notes.
Meyer agrees wholeheartedly: “It’s difficult having to think twice before you pay for anything, about how much this expenditure will set you back in this month’s goal, and whether you’ll have enough to last the rest of the month.”
Natelly believes money woes can affect your standard of living; she circumvents this issue by making decisions based on her wants and needs. She communicates her financial choices openly and diligently saves. Arya also tries her best to prioritise her needs and wants. “Otherwise, I try not to think about it and take it one step at a time,” she tells me.
Ultimately, CY suggests planning for yourself first, or the sandwich generation cycle will never end. “It happens because parents give their all to their children without preparing for themselves in advance,” he explains.
Is comfortable retirement even possible?
While talking about financial goals and mapping with my fellow millennials, I’m reminded of one thing: retirement planning. I wonder if they, like me, have given the topic much thought. Unsurprisingly, most of them have been mulling over it too. Sam expresses his concern regarding the subject but admits he’s not done anything about it. Similarly, Meyer thinks about retirement planning all the time.
“I feel like I haven’t saved enough in liquid assets to retire properly. Most of my cash goes to supporting the household and necessities like insurance and daily living expenses. If I can even save $500 every month, I’d consider that a blessing,” Meyer says.
Conversely, Andrew hopes to retire at 65 with enough money for his monthly expenses; he’s allocated a fixed monthly amount for a retirement investment plan. CY has also taken up investment and long-term saving plans for his golden years. He advises starting early, as time will help accumulate the needed wealth.
While everyone is pondering about their retirement, Naomi remains unperturbed. “I’ll probably just rely on my CPF and insurance savings plan payouts,” she tells me. I don’t know if it’s confidence or well-preparedness for her distant future. Either way, I wish I had even a sliver of Naomi’s positivity.
Fail to plan, plan to fail
Based on my interactions with my interviewees, it’s heartening to know that everyone is learning from the mistakes of past generations and actively working towards breaking the cycle. It’s driving home the point that the sandwich generation in Singapore ends with us, and hopefully, our children will not experience what we’re going through.
Amid all the positivity, I have to ask one more question just to see if everyone is on the same page: given Singapore’s rising living standards and costs, will money ever be enough? Most quickly respond no, though Andrew and Natelly think otherwise. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” Natelly succinctly puts it.
Perhaps that’s just the reminder all of us need. If we’re already implementing plans to break out of the sandwich generation cycle, we should also ensure we have enough for our future.