I just read an article in the latest issue of The Future of Children that made me drop my pencil. Deep in an article by Susan Bianchi on work-family balance was this little nugget: When the average number of adult children was at its peak several years back, there were about three potential caregivers for every elderly person in need of care.  That peak has passed. Hardly astonishing on its face, but add up some recent trends among young adults, and it becomes one of those demographic slaps to the forehead: I can't believe I didn't see that coming?

I'm a Baby Boomer, and there are a lot of us, given that our parents had a good number of children. Standard family size was four back in the day (typically crammed into a 1200 square foot home), but I know of many families with six, eight, even eleven brothers and sisters. That's unheard of today. When we Boomers started our own families, we limited them to two, sometimes three if we had one too many glasses of wine.

And today, as the path into adulthood has slowed, young adults are postponing marriage and family sometimes well into their 30s. Postponement likely means smaller families yet. Or no families. The number of childless women has been growing. Today, about 20% of those in their 40s have no children, double the share in the 1970s.

While many worry about the state of the American family as more young people live together or opt to have children outside of marriage, another issue looms perhaps larger. Who is going to take care of the elderly? In 2030, when this latest generation of 20-somethings will be in their 40s, one in five Americans will be older than age 65 (and 2.3% are projected to be older than 85, double the share today), according to Ann Bookman and Delia Kimbrel in the same issue. Improved health and declining disability mean people will live longer, and the longer one lives, the more things begin to break down, even in healthier adults. Therefore, the need for care later in life will increase. How will the younger generation balance caring for the elderly with work and their own children-and with fewer siblings to share the responsibility? It's already hard and we Boomers have a lot of siblings. And then when they are in their 80s, the imbalance will be even greater. 

As Bianchi notes, "smaller family sizes translate to fewer siblings with whom to share care when a health crisis emerges for one's parents."

Of course, at the same time, we've been divorcing more and forming new "blended" families. More step-siblings might counteract the smaller families. But according to Bianchi, the research to date suggests that step-children feel less obligation to step-parents than biological kin. 

The number of children currently caring for their elderly parents in America is hard to count, but estimates are that 10% of women in their 40s and early 50s are providing care and support to both children and elderly parents. Many of those women are also working. Much of that work is extremely un-family-friendly: days are long, schedules are uncontrollable, overtime pops up frequently, and even when family-friendly policies like flex time are instituted, workers fear a penalty for taking off work (and in this squeezed labor market, a threat to one's job). Now add the care of an elderly parent to the mix and you have an equation for exhaustion.

Millennials might be smart to add work-family balance to their list of demands on Occupy Wall Street because the odds are, they're going to need it down the road. To their credit, they already have it on their wish list. According to a National Journal poll, a job with work-life balance ranks right below job security and sits even with pay for Millennials. They have seen the exhaustion of their parents and they want a little more sanity in their work lives.

Yet hoping for a change and making it happen are two different things. Policies must be changed. There are ways to make work-based policies both more friendly to families and more friendly to the bottom line. The issue of Future of Children outlines a great many of those options. It's worth a read.

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

When (And If) Millennials Have Babies is a reply by Susan Newman Ph.D.

About the Author

Barbara Ray

Barbara Ray is the coauthor of Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood and Why It's Good for All of Us (Delacorte, Jan. 2011).

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