Why caring creates problems — and what government can do

This article was originally posted on Apolitical 

From the parents on whom you depended in the first days after you were born, to the nurses who’ll likely become an ever more frequent fixture of your final years, care — and caregivers — are integral to all of our lives.

Meanwhile, the issue of who must be cared for and who provides that care is of huge importance for governments. Citizens are living longer — according to the UN, the number of people aged 60 or older has tripled since 1950. Getting them the care they need as they age can stave off demographic disaster.

But spending hours caring for others can affect a person’s health, or their ability to participate fully in the economy. Mckinsey estimates that unpaid care work from women accounts for the equivalent of 13% of global GDP.

So what are the issues facing people working — paid or unpaid — in the care economy? And how can governments improve their lives, and reap the economic benefits of investing in them? Apolitical and the Wilson Center’s spotlight on The Care Economy sets out to explore these questions.

The challenges

Among many challenges facing people working in the care economy and the governments responsible for them, three key problems stood out from our reporting:

  1. The burden of unpaid care work falls unevenly on women. More or less everywhere in the world, women spend more time than men caring, without pay, for children, the elderly, and others. That can seriously hurt their health, affecting their ability to rest and requiring them to carry out strenuous tasks without training. And it has a serious economic cost: childcare shortages have been estimated to cost between $12 trillion and $28 trillion in terms of global GDP.
  2. Paid care work can be precarious. Workers in the care sector are often vulnerable. In some countries, labour legislation excludes domestic workers. Others are migrants working in informal sectors. Platforms like Care.com can provide a voice on behalf of a fragmented industry, but some experts warn of “Uberisation”.
  3. Governments must do more with less. In the developed world especially, ageing populations — and attendent increases in the demand for care — come alongside cuts in the care budget. That often means the private sector stepping in, which can bring benefits, but also comes with challenges.


As well as examining the scope of problems in the care economy, Apolitical set out to highlight what governments, third sector organizations and the private sector are doing to tackle them.

Shifting the burden of unpaid care away from women requires changes both to the way we work and to the way we think — the ingrained attitudes held both by men and women that reinforce the status quo.

Norway’s non-transferable paternal leave policy both provided a labour market incentive for dads to take time off, and began a whole new cultural conversation about how men could best bond with their kids. Meanwhile the MenCare campaign has spent years learning how to best encourage men to take on more caring responsibilities in the home.

And to help women cope with the burden, flexible or subsidized childcare models, such as Mexico’s Estancias scheme or India’s SEWA creches can step into the gaps. Perhaps most radical of all, Hawaii is offering citizens money to undertake care work that usually would not be remunerated.

New platform models offer opportunities to empower those working in the paid care sector. The UK’s Equal Care is a worker-owned platform for care workers that will aim to distribute more back to workers. Meanwhile, Care.com, a larger company, has begun offering workers portable benefits and other innovative ways of improving their working lives.

Indeed, care work — which requires emotional intelligence and adaptability — is likely highly resistant to automation. If governments and companies can invest in boosting the number of high-quality, secure jobs in the sector, they’ll reap benefits down the line as workers in other industries potentially see their jobs eroded by the rise of the robots.

And governments are thinking about how to work best with the private sector. Other countries are looking to America and its highly privatized care system for lessons in effective regulation. And Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, the healthcare company, is investing in projects to improve women’s health and help unpaid carers.

Questions do remain: how should we put a value on unpaid care work? How should we best harness new technology to make the most of its benefits and mitigate possible downsides? What, if any, is the work that cannot be taken up by the private sector?