1.4.4 Caring economies

Helpful prior learning and learning objectives

Helpful prior learning:

Learning objectives:

The annual World Happiness Report ranks countries by happiness, exploring the factors leading to human wellbeing. Finland came out on top in 2024, but why?

Finland’s high incomes and long life expectancy help, but another strength is economic equality and care. Finland has less income and wealth inequality than many other wealthy countries. The government uses distributive strategies (Section 1.4.3) like progressive taxes and strong social welfare programmes to promote economic equality. There is less social comparison and pressure to consume material goods, and people are more satisfied with their lives.

A woman in a sauna

Figure 1. Finnish happiness: it’s not just the saunas!

(Credit: Ville Kurki CC BY-SA 4.0)

Finland also has strong social support, offering substantial financial aid and work leave benefits for people to care for children and other relatives. Healthcare is excellent and affordable. Finland’s emphasis on care and equity strengthens social cohesion. Finns trust each other and their government, supporting a strong, resilient society. Finland shows us that building a caring economy is a key part of human wellbeing.

We all need care and care must be provided by others. How can we design our economies to prioritise and support the care we all need?

What are the characteristics of caring economies?

Caring economies have a number of characteristics that we can keep in mind when we consider concrete strategies for improving care:

How can the 5 Rs support more caring economies?

The United Nations and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have outlined five broad categories of strategies that can strengthen care in economies, known as the 5 Rs.

Recognise care: making all forms of care, paid and unpaid, visible in our societies and economies. We should measure it, talk about it, value it and consider it in policies and initiatives.

This Regenerative Economics book is unusual among economics textbooks for including care and is part of efforts to raise awareness of care . Another example is Bhutan's Gross National Happiness index which goes beyond mainstream economic measures like GDP to include psychological well-being, community vitality, and cultural preservation. If we “measure what we treasure”, we can make care more visible and encourage more support for care.

Reduce care: reducing the number of hours spent on unpaid indirect care and direct care tasks (Section 1.3.7) frees up time for caregivers, mainly women and girls, to take paid employment which improves womens’ power and equity in society. They can also use the time to pursue education, build a wider social network and take leisure, all of which are  important for human wellbeing.

The state can prioritise improving water, transport, housing and electricity infrastructure which saves hours on indirect care every day. Improved access to labour-saving technologies such as clothes washing machines is also important. More extensive social services, such as childcare, eldercare, and health care, reduces unpaid time spent on direct care.

In the short video below, Hans Rosling explains the outsized role of the clothes washing machine in reducing time spent on care work.

Redistribute care: sharing care work more evenly across society:

The household, community, markets and state can all shape the conditions in society to make redistribution easier. Gender stereotypes, social norms and laws can be shifted to support redistribution of care work. Markets and the state need to shift financial incentives, like gender disparities in paid work, that cause more women to take up unpaid care work.

In Sweden, parental leave policies are designed to encourage both parents to share childcare responsibilities. Parents are given 480 days of paid parental leave, some of which is only available to men in a use-it or lose-it deal. This policy helps redistribute care work more equally between parents and helps shift gender stereotypes

Represent carers: Ensuring that carers' voices are heard in decision-making processes means that their needs and the value of care work are considered in market and state policies and economic decisions.

In Brazil, the state Unified Health System (SUS) requires  community participation in its health councils and conferences. This inclusion ensures that caregivers and community health workers can influence healthcare policies and practices, representing their interests and the needs of those they care for.

Reward care: Rewarding care work involves providing fair compensation and social recognition for caregivers, acknowledging the importance of their contribution to social, ecological and economic health. 

In paid care work in markets, it is critical that employers pay workers a living wage. Businesses can also offer paid leave or care funding to employees to carry out unpaid care work in households and communities. The state can also acknowledge unpaid care work in calculations of retirement benefits, so that unpaid care workers are not further disadvantaged with lower state pensions in old age. The state can pass minimum wage laws and maximum working hours to secure better working conditions for paid carers. A universal basic income could provide adequate financial support for otherwise unpaid carers.

What are the barriers to strengthening care in the economy?

There are some barriers to improving care in economies. You can see that the 5Rs are intended to address these barriers:

Global leaders at COP28 in Dubai - very few women in the picture

Figure 2. Gender inequality on display at the COP 28 climate negotiations in Dubai

(Credit: UNclimatechange CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Activity 1.4.4

Concept: Regeneration

Skills: Thinking skills (transfer)

Time: Varies depending on option

Type: Individual, pairs, and group depending on option

Option 1: Discussion on care and biomimicry

30-40 minutes

Option 2: Venn diagram - Circular, distributive and care economy strategies

40 minutes

You may have noticed that there are overlaps between circular, distributive and care economy strategies, but also some differences. 

3-part Venn diagram with circular, distributive and caring economy design strategies

Figure 3. A Venn diagram can help us see overlaps and differences between circular, distributive and care strategies

Option 3: Discussion - Should unpaid care work be paid?

40 minutes

Use a discussion format that you are familiar with to consider whether unpaid care work should be paid. Assume that there is a feasible way to pay for currently unpaid care and domestic work.

Before discussing, take time to brainstorm some arguments for and against paying for unpaid care. After you have some of your own arguments, you may want to consider those below. Classify them as either for payment (“For”), or against (“Against”) payment for unpaid care. Arguments come from Economies that Dare to Care, Hot or Cool Institute.

Option 4 - Where is care in the embedded economy?

25 minutes

You have learned about the embedded economy model (Figure 4) in Section 1.1.2.

The embedded economy model

Figure 4. The embedded economy model

(Credit: Kate Raworth and Marcia Mihotich CC-BY-SA 4.0)

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

Checking for understanding

Further exploration

These Further Exploration resources are from Section 1.3.7 Care in the economy, but are repeated here in case you find them interesting and have not explored them.


Folbre, N. (2014). Who Cares? A feminist critique of the care economy. New York: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung New York Office.

Ghosh, J. (2022, September 5). Defining Care: Conceptualisations and Particularities. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. https://feps-europe.eu/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/220905_Gosh_Article_1_final_online.pdf.

Ghosh, J. (2020, September 7). Recognising and Rewarding Care Work: The Roles of Public Policies. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. https://feps-europe.eu/publication/recognising-and-rewarding-care-work-the-role-of-public-policies/.

Institute of Development Studies, Oxfam (2015, June). Redistributing care work for gender equality and justice – a training curriculum. https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/20.500.12413/6600/Redistributing%20Care%20Work%20final.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

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.

Lorek, S., Power, K., and Parker, N. (2023). Economies that Dare to Care - Achieving social justice and preventing ecological breakdown by putting care at the heart of our societies. Hot or Cool Institute, Berlin. https://hotorcool.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/Economies-that-Dare-to-Care.pdf

OECD (2019), Enabling Women’s Economic Empowerment: New Approaches to Unpaid Care Work in Developing Countries, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/ec90d1b1-en.


Link to Quizlet interactive flashcards and terminology games for Section 1.4.4 Caring economies

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

life expectancy: the average time a person can be expected to live

economic equality: equal distribution of income and opportunity between different groups in society

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

wealth: the total value (stock) of someone’s assets such as money, house, or investments

distributive: when something is widely or evenly among individuals

progressive tax: tax rates that increase as income or wealth increases

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

resilient: able to recover after a disturbance

caring economy: the paid and unpaid work that support all forms of caregiving

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

worldview: an all-inclusive outlook on the world held by an individual or group, and through which they make sense of reality and gain knowledge

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

provisioning institution: systems that manage the levels of energy and matter used to meet specific human needs

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

system: a set of interdependent parts that organise to create a functional whole

food web: a complex set of feeding relationships between organisms, with multiple connections between them; shows the transfer and transformation of energy and matter through living organisms in an ecosystem

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

resilient: able to recover after a disturbance

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

stakeholder: a person who has an interest in or is impacted by some activity

democracy: a system of governing which depends on the will of the people

gender equity: when people of different genders are treated equally

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

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

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

infrastructure: large scale physical systems that a society needs to function (roads, railways, electricity networks, etc)

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

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

subsidy: a payment made by the state to a business or individual to encourage certain behaviour

norm: a social rule for accepted and expected behaviour, can be stated or unstated

wage: payment for work

pension: money paid under given conditions to a person following retirement or to surviving dependents

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

universal basic income: financial support from the state in the form of recurring payments to everyone to meet basic needs

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