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Double Investment in the Care Economy to Avoid Global Crisis – ILO

Changes in family structures and lengthening life expectancies are leading the world towards a care crisis, the International Labour Organization has warned. And it’s women who will lose out the most.

Written by Megan Clement Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Experts say both men and the state need to get more involved in providing family care to stave off a looming crisis.Gulshan Khan/AFP/Getty Images

The world is facing a crisis in the provision of care in the coming decades, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has warned. In a new report on the future of the global care economy, the authors state that without proper government investment in care services before 2030, gender inequality will increase and economies will suffer.

As populations age, family structures shrink and more women enter the workforce, the demand for care work is set to increase significantly in the next decade – it’s expected that there will be 2.3 billion people needing care by 2030. Lead author Laura Addati says that whether this work is high quality and well remunerated or low quality and exploitative will determine the scale of the crisis.

Addati says government spending on child care, elderly care and early childhood education will have to double by 2030 to avoid a “race to the bottom” on care work. If we continue on current investment trajectories, she says, women will end up taking on more and more unpaid care, leading to higher poverty and a waste of human capital.

“Women will lose their talent and the investment that has been put into educating more women, pushing them to have careers, climbing the ladder and breaking the glass ceiling,” she says.

“It’s all these costs in terms of equality, and in terms of impoverishment.”

She says it’s not just unpaid carers who will suffer in this scenario, but paid carers and domestic workers as well as nurses, midwives and doctors, who will have to step in to care for more clients and patients, and do so on lower salaries, as investment fails to keep up with the demand for care.

“Care work cannot be forfeited,” she says. “The demand is there to be met.”

This is what the Addati calls the “status quo” scenario for 2030. But if governments take “the high road” scenario and double investment in care work, it’s estimated that 475 million extra care jobs will be added to the global economy. She says this approach will not just stave off the care crisis, but also ensure the Sustainable Development Goals on health and education will be met.

Changing Family Dynamics

Much of the looming care conundrum is due to the changing structure of families worldwide. While in the past, the burden of unpaid care work has been split across extended families, the rise of nuclear families and single-parent households has intensified the responsibilities that fall to primary caregivers, who, more often than not, are women. There are 300 million single parents leading households worldwide, and 78 percent of them are women.

“This idea of the traditional role of extended families helping out with child care – it’s not the norm any more,” Addati says.

Mayra Buvinic, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, says this dynamic applies to the elderly as well, and that the developing world will be affected just as much as the developed.

“In the developing world you’re still under the notion that families will take care of their elderly, but they’re not any more, in a lot of places,” she says. “And then what do you do with your elderly?”

The Burden of Unpaid Care

The report also reveals that the burden of unpaid care shouldered by women is higher than previously thought. While earlier calculations found that, on average, women carry out two and a half times more unpaid care work than men, the new report puts that figure at 3.2 times more. Worldwide, women are responsible for 76.2 percent of all unpaid care work, and there is not a country on earth where men do more of this work than women.

Adatti says the overall value of this work is $11 trillion, or 9 percent of global GDP, the equivalent of “two billion people working every day for eight hours.”

The gender gap in time spent on unpaid care narrowed by a mere seven minutes between 1997 and 2012; on that trajectory it will take 210 years for the gap to close. This is in line with other gender equality measures. Last year, the World Economic Forum found that the overall economic gender gap would not close for another 217 years at current rates.

Redistributing Care

Addati says we have to speed up progress on closing the care gender gap. Part of that involves encouraging men to take on more unpaid care work. The report points to progressive parental leave policies as a key driver of men’’s ongoing involvement in child care, which can lead to a better life for children too.

“We see that when men are more involved, children’s outcomes improve in development and health,” she says.

Addati and Buvinic agree that care work also needs to be redistributed from families to the state, to ease the burden on women. Buvinic says the private sector cannot be responsible for providing the majority of care.

“The private sector, if they’re going to be made by the government to provide child care, they need to absorb the cost. So, the answer is, you need the government, you need all of us, to pay for child care.”

She points to Uruguay as an example of the government leading by example on care.

“Uruguay is a small country, very urban, not very rich. But it regulates in terms of elder care, child care, it builds more child care centers,” she says. “It has a philosophical statement and value statement that care is something that all society is involved in, that men and women are involved in, and that the government should provide.”

Addati says that’s precisely the type of investment that is required to stave off a care crisis globally.

“It boils down to what type of society we want to live in,” she says. “What future are we designing? Is it a future where care will be central, and taken into account in our daily life and policymaking, or a future where there is no space to care?”

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