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Between Generations: Millennials Navigating Student Debt and Elder Care

by Tamara W. Dias

On January 31, 2023, I sat in a coworking space, working on a few projects for my business. While preparing for my lunch break, I received a phone call from my mom. Though my mom and I talk on the phone often, it was unusual for her to call me in the middle of a workday. She was a School Counseling Director, so her days were usually jam-packed until the school day ended. I remember taking a slight pause as I answered the phone, because the timing of the call signaled that this was either some really good news – or the opposite – some really terrible news. The next sentence she shared would be the catalyst for one of the most trying years of my life.

“Tamara, your father is in the emergency room at MCV hospital. He’s had multiple strokes.”

In the immediate, I wasn’t sure what all of that truly meant. The only priority was jumping in my car, driving down I-64 back to my hometown of Richmond, VA, and getting to my dad. I quickly found out that due to my father’s mix of health concerns (including high blood pressure and diabetes), his stroke recovery would be anything but normal. The next few months not only opened the door to a six-figure neurological surgery and a six-week stay in the critical care unit, but it also pulled back the curtain on the challenges faced by adult children who are quickly thrown into the role of caregiving for their aging parents.

New York Life’s 2023 survey revealed that 66% of self-reported caregivers belong to a demographic often referred to as the “sandwich generation.” This demographic is defined as millennials raising children of their own while also adding in the role of caregivers to their aging parents and loved ones. The startling percentage is an increase from the 2020 reported number of 39%.New York Life also found that for the older group of millennials, their role as caregivers meant mainly providing financial and housing support.

In the heart of modern financial dilemmas, many millennials find themselves precariously balanced between the weight of their past and the obligations of their future. It is a unique generational challenge, characterized by a tug-of-war between paying off student loans—a stark reminder of their educational investments—and stepping up as financial caregivers for older family members. This dual responsibility is not just a financial burden; it’s a profound life ordeal that reshapes the very fabric of adulthood.

The statistics are stark, essentially painting a picture of an age bracket laden with financial responsibilities unheard of in previous generations. Millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, account for a jarring 43% of the nation’s outstanding student loan debt. The average person apart of this group carries close to $43,000 in student debt, a figure that looms over decisions ranging from homeownership to starting a family. Yet, even as they navigate this debt, many are also stepping into roles as financial caregivers for their aging parents and relatives, a reality that adds complexity to their financial landscape.

Nearly three months after my father suffered from his strokes, I found myself having to figure out his housing and financial situation. His doctor reminded us that he would have months ahead of rehabilitation as he learned to walk, talk, and eat on his own. This meant that he could not return to living alone, as he had been doing for the past 20 years. I assumed the role of caregiver by default, and as a millennial with multiple college degrees, financial goals of my own, and who was hoping to soon start a family – I realized that I was drowning trying to keep my own life together and managing his ever-changing health and financial needs.

The blending of these dual burdens—chipping away at substantial student loans while simultaneously providing financial support for aging relatives—represents a narrative that has yet to capture the spotlight it deserves. It illustrates the complex predicament of an ensnared age group between the critical phases of advancing their careers and caring for their elders, each phase exerting its unique financial pressures. This duality often creates a sense of isolation among millennials, fostering a belief that their fiscal hardships are solitary battles to be fought in silence. Yet, this is far from the truth. As this particular demographic navigates these turbulent waters, it becomes increasingly clear that their financial and emotional challenges are part of a broader collective experience, one that merits broader recognition and a more robust support system. This narrative is not just about the individual battles but about a generational shift in responsibilities, expectations, and the very definition of financial stability.

Understanding the nuances of this dual financial burden requires a deep dive into the socioeconomic factors that have shaped the age group’s experience. For one, the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, leaving numerous millennials with substantial debt on their shoulders. This financial strain is compounded by a competitive job market, where a college degree is often a minimum requirement, but not a guarantee of financial stability. Additionally, the aftermath of economic recessions has left the group navigating a landscape of financial uncertainty, further exacerbating the trials of saving for the future while repaying student loans.

On the other end of the spectrum, the aging population means that more millennials are finding themselves in caregiving roles. The financial aspect of this caregiving is multifaceted, encompassing everything from medical bills to everyday living expenses. For some, it means contributing to the cost of assisted living or in-home care; for others, it involves taking an aging family member into their own home. This shift not only affects millennials’ financial planning but also their mental and emotional well-being, as the stress of caregiving responsibilities can take a significant toll.

The convergence of these financial responsibilities creates a perfect storm, one that requires resilience, creativity, and, most importantly, a collective rethinking of financial planning. Financial experts advocate for a multi-pronged approach to managing these dual burdens, emphasizing the importance of robust savings plans, investment in long-term financial growth, and, when possible, open conversations about financial expectations and limitations within families. It is also crucial for millennials to seek out and utilize financial planning resources and support designed to navigate these complex challenges effectively.

Moreover, this situation underscores the need for systemic changes, including reform in student loan policies and more support for caregivers. There seems to be a growing call for policies that reflect the realities of modern financial loads, offering millennials a pathway to financial stability that does not come at the expense of their family obligations. The momentum for change is building, with advocacy for workplace flexibility, caregiver support services, and financial education becoming more pronounced. These systemic shifts are essential for not only alleviating their immediate pressures, but also for laying the groundwork for a more sustainable intergenerational support system in the future.

As millennials navigate these complex waters, there’s a rising sense of solidarity in our shared experiences. Through forums, social media, and personal networks, we find solace and strength in discussing our challenges and exchanging solutions. It’s a movement towards collective understanding and support, breaking through the isolation that can envelop us in these trying times. My own journey of stepping into the role of caregiver for my father after his strokes has deeply intertwined with this shared narrative. In telling my story, I have discovered not only an outpouring of empathy and support but also a wealth of guidance and shared wisdom from others traversing similar paths. This personal chapter of my life, marked by its trials and triumphs in caregiving, underscores the profound importance of our shared struggle and the resilience we foster together. It’s a testament to the power of our united voices, illustrating that even in our most personal struggles, we are never truly alone.

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Vinegar Hill Magazine is a space that is designed to support and project a more inclusive social narrative, to promote entrepreneurship, and to be a beacon for art, culture, and politics in Central Virginia.

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