1.3.7 Care in the economy

Helpful prior learning and learning objectives

Helpful prior learning:

Learning objectives

It’s amazing to see you here reading this text! 

This is only possible because someone gave birth to you, and you have been nurtured, dressed, fed, and educated for years by many other people in different relationships. And it’s only possible because planet Earth has provided you with air, water and food.  All this support in your life is likely invisible to you unless you lose it. 

And we can all lose the care we need if we don’t work to support care in the economy properly.

A woman holding the hand of a toddler who is climbing a log in a playground

Figure 1. All of us rely on the care of others, everyday

(Credit: Oleksandr P CC0)

What is the care economy? 

Care work is all the activities that support human and ecological wellbeing and renewal. It involves caring for the elderly, children, the disabled, and the sick, in addition to household chores like cleaning and cooking to support a functioning household. Care involves cultivating land, nurturing plants and animals, as well as political activism, and community engagement. 

We are all vulnerable, emotional humans. We have different care needs over our lives, and we are never truly independent. Care is a basic right that reduces economic inequality and poverty, bringing enormous social and ecological benefits. For thriving and resilient human communities and ecosystems, we have to understand care and support all kinds of care work in our economy. 

But care is more than human action. It is also an attitude. We must consider how our daily actions impact other humans and the rest of the living world. Are we taking a caring approach to our lives and the planet’s living systems?

Types of care work

Understanding different types of care work is necessary to help us design more effective care economies. We can classify care work into direct and indirect care jobs, as well as paid and unpaid care.

A caregiver giving water to a care receiver

Figure 2. Direct care   Credit: Jsme MILA CC0)

Direct care

Addresses an immediate need, often involves physical contact between caregiver and care-receiver

Examples: bathing, feeding a baby, dressing an elderly person, helping with homework, caring for plants and animals

Figure 3. Indirect care  Credit: Nikhlesh Tyagi CC0)

Indirect care

Supports the living conditions that humans need to survive and thrive

Examples: cooking, cleaning, fetching water, repairing, shopping, planning, community engagement, volunteering

Figure 4. Unpaid care  Credit: Alex Green CC0)

Unpaid care

Occurs mainly in the household by (often) female family members, or in the commons. Includes direct care for children, partners, parents, friends, neighbours and other family members and indirect care work of cleaning, cooking, and other domestic work.

Time consuming and essential to other areas of the economy, as workers are refreshed and regenerated every day, but not the work is not counted in gross domestic product (GDP), the main metric used to measure the size of our economies.

Figure 5. Paid care   (Credit: Naomi Shi CC0)

Paid care

Occurs in households, markets and the state, including professional caregiving in households, schools, childcare centres, hospitals, and care homes for the elderly and disabled. 

If the work is reported to the government, its value is included in gross domestic product (GDP). 

Who receives and gives care?

We all need different types of care throughout our lives. Children, the elderly, and people who are sick or disabled need more care. But even healthy adults need care. Our family and friends nurture us with meals, healing, and advice. We all have care relationships also with plants, animals, soils and the rest of the living world.

Caregivers do care work for other humans for many reasons: love, duty, expectations, lack of alternatives or payment. Globally, mainly women and girls provide care work. Oxfam reports that women do over 75% of unpaid care, valued at over $10.8 trillion annually—three times the size of the global tech industry. Some people use biological justifications to support the uneven care work of women, but the unjust distribution is largely a result of culture and power dynamics in societies.

Figure 6 shows the disparity between men and women of paid and unpaid care work in different regions of the world. What insights can you get about care work from the data?

Figure 6. Gender differences between paid and unpaid care work, by region

(Credit: International Labor Organization)

Some care jobs are paid, but often receive low wages despite their high value to society and the economy. People may view this work as low-skilled, or as an extension of unpaid care. Globally, many caregivers do not earn enough to live on, lack fair working hours, and do not have labour rights and social security.

This unequal treatment of care work reflects a power disparity between men and women that creates a reinforcing feedback loop (Figure 7) that further weakens women's economic and social standing (Section S.x). Time-consuming, unpaid care responsibilities prevent women from getting an education or paid jobs, reducing their economic security and social power. Low wages and poor conditions for paid care work can trap women in vulnerable economic and social circumstances.

Reinforcing feedback loop showing the relationship between women's social/economic power, unpaid work, and economic security

Figure 7. Reinforcing feedback loop associated with unpaid or poorly paid care work. 

Note the + and - symbols refer to whether the relationship between the two variables is direct or inverse.

Which factors affect care work?

Care work varies over time with changes in our populations, culture, power and income. Our current economic, social and ecological conditions in many parts of the world undermine care work.

Demographics and culture

Demographics are the characteristics of a population, like its size, age structure, and gender distribution. Care needs change as societies change over time.

Historically, high birth and death rates meant large numbers of children in society that needed care. As human health improved, death rates and then birth rates have declined, leading to aging societies. Figure 8 shows high percentages of children under-five in the global population in 1951. Figure 9 shows that by 2030, there will be a lower proportion of children and more middle-aged and elderly people. 

Note: these population pyramids use a binary view of gender, male/female. Many people in the world do not identify with these two distinctions. These pyramids have been included despite this limitation because they illustrate a point about changing age structure and care work.

Population pyramid, global population 1951, with a very wide base

Figure 8. Global population pyramid, 1951. Note the big gap between the 0-4 population and the 5-9 population, indicating a large number of deaths among young children.

(Credit: populationpyramid.net)

Population pyramid, global 2030, shaped more like a column, with straighter sides

Figure 9. Global population pyramid, projected 2030. Note that young people are a much lower percentage of the population, and the percentages of older people have increased.

(Credit: populationpyramid.net)

Longer lives are something to celebrate! Longer lives mean that humans can support each other for longer. Healthy grandparents are often a key part of supporting younger generations in their family and community with unpaid care work. Engaging in this purposeful work can also help older generations to stay active and healthy. But at some point, older generations will themselves need care. By 2030, an estimated 2.3 billion out of 8.5 billion people will need especially high levels of care, shifting focus from child-care to elder-care.

Grandparents caring for a grandchild

Figure 10. Grandparents play an essential caregiving role in many families

(Credit: Yan-Di Chang CC BY 2.0)

Another demographic change is household structure. Historically, extended families lived together, sharing care responsibilities. Now, in many places, nuclear families (parents and children) and single-parent households have become more common over time, though there are large differences in household structure between cultures. Also, generally, more women are working outside the home. These changes reduce how much unpaid care can be provided, or cause women to give up leisure and sleep to provide care. More women working outside the home increases demand for care services provided by other institutions, whether the market, the state or the commons.

Incomes, markets and the global care chain

As incomes rise, especially if more women take on paid work outside the home, households may choose to pay for care, such as cleaning, childcare or eldercare. However, this care is often very costly for households, while still paying care workers less than other jobs. This financial stress on both the household and paid care workers can harm the quality of care and the lives of the care workers. And everywhere there is not enough care available, because it is undervalued by the economy. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) calls this situation a global care crisis. Strategies to address the care crisis are explored in Section 1.4.4.

Another issue is that global income inequality has increased global care chains, where care providers from lower-income countries work in higher-income countries. Low pay and status for caregivers in high-income countries is causing a shortage of caregivers, so households that  can afford it may hire migrant (mainly) women caregivers. Approximately half of all migrants are women and girls, most of whom do care work in the countries they migrate to. These women usually send money, called remittances, back home to support their families. But they often have to leave their own children and other family members in the care of other women in their home country, forming a global care chain.

Migrant carers often face exploitation. Far from home and dependent on their employers, many carers have little or no legal protection. According to Oxfam, globally only 10% of domestic workers are protected by the same labour laws as other workers, and only about 50% get minimum wage protection or have limits on working hours. In the worst cases, migrant carers can be trapped, trafficked, abused, and have their wages stolen. Strong legal protection of care providers is essential to improve global care work.

Economic, social and ecological shocks

Economic, social, and ecological crises impact care work. The Covid-19 pandemic showed how these shocks strain care, with households juggling childcare and work at home, and healthcare workers facing overwhelming patient loads and mental health challenges. Many vulnerable people around the world lacked the care they needed.

Climate change, water stress and the breakdown in biodiversity are also causing widespread food and water shortages, and financial stress that disrupts incomes. The world is not well prepared for these challenges. To strengthen our societies’ resilience to shocks, our economies must strengthen care work. 

Women and children waiting to get water in a region experiencing drought

Figure 11. Fetching water during drought in Tigray region of Ethiopia. Care work is vital for human resilience during ecological, social and economic shocks.

(Credit: Unicef CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Why is care work undervalued and what are the consequences?

If care work is so important, why is it undervalued?

Unpaid care doesn't count in gross domestic product (GDP), the total value of goods and services produced annually, because it’s not paid. This makes care work invisible, overlooked by societies.

Also, paid care work is viewed as a cost, not an investment. Businesses and governments aim to reduce costs, so care is often cut from budgets rather than invested in. This mindset underfunds care, overlooking its importance in developing human potential.

Other factors causing care work to be undervalued include:

Photograph of a caregiver and child

Figure 12. Paid caregivers often have an emotional connection with those they care for, making it harder to negotiate fair compensation.

(Credit: Edward Eyer CC0)

Undervaluing care has significant negative consequences for the economy and wider society. It perpetuates gender inequality that prevents women from improving social and economic status and security. Low-pay results in a shortage of paid caregivers globally which creates global care chains that can put women in vulnerable positions. It contributes to household financial and relationship stress as families are often confronted with difficult choices about how to balance domestic care work and paid work outside the home. Undervaluing care creates lonelier, unhealthier, less connected societies, with more individuals not receiving the care they need and less social cohesion and trust. And overall, undervaluing care makes our economies, societies and the rest of the living world less resilient to change and shocks.

Care work is complex, highly-skilled and vital work. It requires social intelligence, empathy, trust, problem-solving, creativity, dedication, and intrinsic motivation. Care is the difference between merely being kept alive and having the 'good life’.

The video below sums up many of the points from this section and introduces some ideas for strengthening care work which are explored in Section 1.4.4.

Activity 1.3.7

Concept: Systems

Skills: Thinking skills (transfer) and communicating skills

Time: varies depending on option (see below)

Type: Individual, pairs or groups depending on option

Option 1 - Who cares?

40 minutes

Option 2 - Discussion: What does human care have to do with ecological care?

25 minutes

The text in this section claims that care work is essential for social and ecological wellbeing. While it is relatively clear that ecological care has positive impacts on humans, it is not necessarily the case that human care positively impacts nature.

Option 3 - Discussion: Care and language

25 minutes

Different languages use the word ‘care’ differently. Some languages have one word for care that has a wide range of meanings in different contexts. Other languages have more words for care that capture different contextual meanings.

Consider the concept of care in your language:

Ideas for longer activities, deeper engagement, and projects are listed in Subtopic 1.5 Taking action

Checking for understanding

Further exploration


Folbre, N. (2005). Caring Labor. Transversal. https://transversal.at/transversal/0805/folbre/en

International Labor Organization. Care work and care jobs for the future of decent work. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/---publ/documents/publication/wcms_633166.pdf

Marçal, K. (2018). Who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner? A story about women and economics. Granta.

Nadasen, P. (2017). Rethinking Care: Arlie Hochschild and the Global Care Chain. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 45(3/4), 124–128. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26421126

Coffey, C. et al. (2020). Time to Care: Unpaid and underpaid care work and the global inequality crisis. Oxfam International. https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/time-to-care-unpaid-and-underpaid-care-work-and-the-global-inequality-crisis-620928/

Population pyramid.net. https://www.populationpyramid.net/

Pretorius, I. (2023). Talking about care in public. ConFusion. https://creativeconfusionblog.wordpress.com/2023/02/07/talking-about-care-in-public/

Wirtschaft ist Care. https://wirtschaft-ist-care.org/english/

Terminology (in order of appearance)

Link to Quizlet interactive flashcards and terminology games for Section 1.3.7 Care in the economy

care: the act of providing what is necessary for the health, welfare, upkeep, and protection of someone or something

economy: all the human-made systems that transfer and transform energy and matter to meet human needs and wants

household: a system where people living together care for each other and do domestic work, often termed the 'core economy'

cultivate: to prepare land and grow crops on it

economic inequality: unequal distribution of income and opportunity between different groups in society

poverty: the state of being poor

resilient: able to recover after a disturbance

ecosystem: the interaction of groups of organisms with each other and their physical environment

direct care: care that addresses an immediate need, often involves physical contact between caregiver and care-receiver

indirect care: care that supports the living conditions that humans need to survive and thrive

unpaid care: care work that is not paid

commons: a system where people self-organise to co-produce and manage shared resources.

gross domestic product (GDP): the total value of all goods and services produced in an economy in a time period

paid care: care work that is paid

market: a system where people buy and sell goods and services for a price.

state: a system that provides essential public services, and also governs and regulates other economic institutions

culture: the beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviours and traditions shared by a group of people and transmitted from one generation to the next

power: the ability to influence events or the behaviour of other people

wage: payment for work

social security: financial and other assistance from the state for people in need

reinforcing feedback: a situation where change in a system causes further changes that amplify the original change which can lead to tipping points in a system

income: the ongoing money earned (flow) from work or investments

demographics: the characteristics of a population, like its size, age structure, and gender distribution

extended families: a family that is larger than parents and children, to include grandparents and other relatives

nuclear families: a couple and their dependent children

institution: human-made systems of rules and norms that shape social behavior

global care chain: a series of personal links between people across the globe based on the paid or unpaid work of caring

remittances: money sent in payment or as a gift, often from someone in a different country

exploitation: using and benefiting from natural resources or humans; the term is often used negatively to imply using power to take advantage of a situation

minimum wage: the lowest wage permitted by law or other agreement

biodiversity: the variety of living organisms on Earth

investment: money spent for the enhancement of human or physical capabilities

gender inequality: people are not treated equally on the basis of their gender

social cohesion: the extent to which people in society feel connected to one another and share common values

the good life (buen vivir): a life that brings wellbeing, with all its possible meanings, to self and others