Learning to Fly

Heidi Igarashi studies the "sandwich generation," parents who care for their adult children as well as their own aging parents. (Photo; Nick Houtman)
Heidi Igarashi studies the “sandwich generation,” parents who care for their adult children as well as their own aging parents. Listen to a podcast with Igarashi. (Photo: Nick Houtman)

For many first-year college students, going to a new school represents “leaving the nest.” They are now responsible for housing, bills and their own education. But according to Heidi Igarashi , a research assistant at Oregon State University, most are still in their parents’ nest and will be for several more years.

“Parents used to expect that their kids should be financially independent by 22,” she says, “but now the majority of them say 25. There is a longer run up to adulthood.”

Igarashi, a doctoral student who works with Carolyn Aldwin, professor of human development and family sciences, recently published a study looking at parents who support both adult children (ages 18 to 30) and their own elderly parents. She found that while parental support may benefit maturing adults, things get more difficult when they care for the older generation.

“The idea of the empty nest is based on this probably antiquated idea of the life cycle where you get married, have children, your children grow up, ‘leave the nest,’ and the parents are there to ride out those last periods of time. ‘Empty nest,’” she adds, “applies to some people but not many.”

It is simply taking longer for young adults to take flight. That trend shows up in a variety of ways, from education to insurance.  For example, Igarashi points to an increased interest and a need for further education in graduate school.  Health insurance has also changed. Prior to 2010, states had varying rules on dependency for health insurance purposes. Now federal law says a child can remain on a parent’s insurance until age 26. Igarashi attributes these cultural changes to the nest being full longer.

Igarashi found that most parents were happy to support their children for longer periods of time. Parents, she suggests, are simply continuing what they had been doing. However, she also looked at them as caregivers for their own parents. This type of caring is increasingly common. The average couple has more parents than children. But that doesn’t mean it is always received with ease. Igarashi calls this type of support “caring up.” On the generational ladder, the older you get, the higher on the ladder you are.

Caring Up Is Hard to Do

“Caring up is hard on everyone. The midlife folks were very happy to provide care up, but it came with this burden, feelings of angst, anxiety, uncertainty. Not only for themselves, but for their parents too.” Some elderly parents had Alzheimer’s, and some were bed ridden. In these circumstances, feelings of anxiety are natural, she adds.

Igarashi did her study during the economic recession of 2008-2009. Shortly after she published her results, the PEW Research Center released a similar but separate study that added more detail. PEW found that in 2012, 47% of midlife adults (ages 40-59) were supporting a child, while they were also taking care of a parent older than 65-years-old. Pew Researchers referred to these individuals as part of a “sandwich generation,” meaning they provide both care up and care down the generational ladder.

Despite any feelings of potential burdens, Igarashi’s study found that during these changing economic times, being a “sandwich generation” may not be a bad thing. Young adults get the support they need to take flight from the nest when they are truly ready, whether for educational, financial or other reasons.

“In our society we tend to really value autonomy and independence, and hold it almost paramount to almost anything else,” says Igarashi. “What our study indicates is that it’s really interdependence that may become really important, especially in this changing socioeconomic world where you really need other people around you to really work together.”

Most college students fit into the category of nestlings learning to fly. While the job market will continue to create challenges, Igarashi provides encouragement that parents are willing to assist their children during these changing times even while assisting parents of their own.

Co-authors on Igarashi’s study include Oregon State professor Karen Hooker, Deborah P. Coehlo (OSU-Cascades) and Margaret M. Manoogian (Western Oregon University).


See Igarashi’s report, “My Nest Is Full”: Intergenerational relationships at midlife, in the Oregon State University Scholar’s Archive.

See the PEW Research Center study on mid-life adults: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/01/30/the-sandwich-generation/