We’re just a few weeks away from the world’s first International Day of Care and Support on October 29th. After years of advocacy to promote decent care work, experts around the world are lauding this day as a significant milestone for gender equality. While this is promising, we can’t get complacent: When it comes to the care economy, gender equality still feels like a pipe dream.
Across the world, almost 80 percent of unpaid caregivers—the people who care for children, the elderly, and those living with disabilities—are women. Most of them are women of color from poor, structurally disadvantaged families. They often provide this care with no support, pay, or respect.
Why aren’t we doing more about this? We know that unpaid care is valued to be as much as 9 percent of global GDP (USD 11 trillion). We also know that care work is associated with adverse health outcomes for caregivers. Yet, the care economy is still seen as a gender issue – one that only women’s rights organizations or institutions should be solving. But if we want resilient, inclusive, and equitable care economies, we need others to wake up.
If labor economists and world leaders are serious about post-pandemic recovery and growth, here is an economically significant solution: Paid care is one of the fastest-growing economic sectors and represents a substantial source of employment worldwide. Investing and addressing existing gaps in care services could generate almost 300 million more jobs worldwide.
This doesn’t include unpaid care, which is not part of gross domestic product (GDP) calculations. Evidence from 64 countries suggests that more than 16.4 billion hours go toward unpaid care work every day and that women perform 76.2% of these hours of unpaid care work, which is more than three times as much as men (in Asia, women perform four times as much unpaid care work). This is equivalent to two billion people working every day for eight hours without remuneration. If valued based on an hourly minimum wage, this would be about 9% of global GDP or approx. $11 trillion USD. In other words, if the care work sector was valued as its own economy, it would be approximately equal to the GDPs of Japan, Germany, and India combined.
This affects health workers too. Demographic shifts in Asia and other regions of the world highlight rapidly aging populations and declining birth rates. We’re already seeing the consequences in motion. In countries like Japan and South Korea, the demand for eldercare exceeds the supply of care workers available. We know that population aging induces growing costs in healthcare services. Unless governments invest in innovative care solutions (like the nursing home robots in Japan), the specialized demands of growing aging populations will place increasing burdens on health systems—on nurses, doctors, ambulatory services, and more. So, health workers, please be selfish, think about how this affects you.
Even when it comes to climate change, prioritizing the care economy is important. As climate journalist Kate Arnoff aptly noted, “Care work is rapidly growing and generally low-carbon, making it possibly a more prolific source of good, green jobs than the manufacturing revival the Biden administration is hoping to offer those transitioning out of fossil fuels.”
Of course, the care economy has a big gender component. Gender policymakers and practitioners must continue to prioritize it in their policy agendas. However, an effective solution to the problems of the care economy requires skill sets and capabilities that exist beyond the mandate of gender institutions. We need a whole-of-government approach.
Why is the care economy missing from all these other discussions? Is it that people don’t know it exists? Or that those of us in the space aren’t creating enough opportunities for collaboration? Or is it because those who benefit most from care work are the men in power, and those who are providing this care work are women, most of whom are of color and sitting at the bottom of the pyramid?
Governments and legislators can start by making more investments to the care economy. Closing significant policy gaps requires an estimated US$4.4 trillion (or 4% of total annual GDP) by 2030. Even smaller investments (that increase care worker wages, promote digital innovations for care, and expanded community models) toward this can go a long way.
When labor officials think about care workers, they need to think also about unpaid caregivers and those in the informal economy. Are the policies that are designed to support the care economy covering those providing unpaid care or those in the informal economy who cannot access critical social protections?
Health officials need to prioritize long-term and disability care infrastructure. While Medicaid and Medicare cover some home-based health care services, they often cater to people who are severely disabled and/or homebound, have large wait times, with services of varying quality. We need to expand these programs so they are easily accessible to all those who need care.
And the rest of us need to think about how the care economy affects us. Almost all of us will be affected by issues of care, whether it is because we have an elderly parent, a young child, a partner with care responsibilities or needs, or because we ourselves will need to be cared for. We all need to advocate for transformative and resilient care economies.
Finally, those of us who work in the care space need to find ways of bringing in these other perspectives. I hope that when we do, others can see that investing in the care economy will help them achieve their goals too. When we invest in the care economy, we’re investing in economic growth, health systems strengthening, climate change, and societal transformation.