Koreo Futures
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Koreo Futures

Provocation 1: The Rising Status of Care

This piece is part of Koreo Futures, a project looking at the future of good work. Through a series of provocations, we’re exploring some of the trends affecting work which seeks to affect social change. You can read the introduction to the project here. This first provocation is about the rising status of care and is made up of this piece, a research bank, some comment from experts, a reading list, and some ideas for taking the conversation back into organisations and teams.

Image Credit, Danny Gardner

Provocation: the combination of uneven automation, an ageing population, and crisis in social care, will elevate the status of care-giving as work, and with it the working conditions for care-givers in the UK and beyond.

“There are only four kinds of people in this world — those who have been caregivers, those who currently are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who need caregivers.” — Rosalyn Carter

If you were looking for clues as to the future of work, the red carpet at The Golden Globes might not the first place you’d look. And yet, as Meryl Streep walked down it in January 2018, the woman beside her represented three of the most essential forces shaping work in the 21st century.

Meryl Streep and Ai-jen Poo at the Golden Globes 2018

Streep’s guest was Ai-jen Poo, a New York City-based activist, one of a number of social leaders invited by high profile actors as a way of highlighting their support for #MeToo movement. While her invitation might have been prompted by #MeToo, Ai-jen’s relevance to the future of work lies in the three complementary roles she plays when not in the limelight; leader of the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance, co-Director of Caring Across Generations, and an organiser of the Women’s Marches that spread around the world at the beginning of 2017. As such, her work connects 3 things which will be central to the future of work in the UK as much as in the US: the work of caring, an ageing population, and gender inequality.

An Ageing Population

In a conversation often dominated by the artificial and the technological, it is perhaps ironic that one of the themes that will impact most on the future of work concerns an enduringly human question: how we want to grow old. Because one of the few certainties about the future of work is that it will have to take into account, react to, and accommodate a rapidly ageing global population.

The UN describes that ageing population as one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st century, and it will affect the UK as much as anywhere, with the UK’s population of over 85s predicted to grow by 106 per cent in the next 20 years. Whether you see this shift as a grey tsunami ready to shatter an already ragged shoreline, or an elder boom from which we all stand to profit, its imminent arrival should prompt some pressing questions.

In a work context, those questions might on the one hand ask what work means to us as we age, and how we can continue to be fulfilled by work into what once might have been retirement age. On the other hand, we might ask what work is created by that ageing population, and what might be involved in supporting people to live fulfilling lives as they age. In particular, how will we provide care for a rapidly ageing population? And what kind of workforce will that require?

A frame from B.E.N (Bionically Engineered Nursing) a dramatisation of being cared for by a robot.

In the UK, this demographic shift is already at the heart an ongoing crisis in social care, which pitches austerity and a shrinking state against rapidly growing demand. This crisis is at least partly a workforce issue, with more than 2 million new carers needed in the next 20 years to meet demand. In that context it’s not hard to see how economic and political uncertainty, encapsulated by Brexit, will have a further destabilizing impact on a workforce which currently includes 90,000 workers from the EU (over 7% of the workforce).

Invisible Work

The fact that this aspect of the ‘future of work’ conversation is among its least visible is entirely appropriate. Care work is often described as invisible work, or ‘the work that makes other work happen’, and is systematically undervalued, paid poorly when it is at all.

That invisibility is at least in part because caring continues to be seen through the lens of gender. Society has historically seen domestic care as fundamentally a woman’s responsibility, with options for child and elderly care only moving into the public realm towards the end of the last century. That history exerts a powerful influence even as women’s economic and professional empowerment opens up around the world; women continue to do the lion’s share of unpaid caring (75% globally), and the care workforce is still overwhelmingly female, with 80% of paid care in the UK carried out by women.

Both the responsibility for and ability to provide care has long been associated with a particular understanding of femininity, and the discourse driven by those stereotypes is deeply ingrained. A recent New York Times article argued that not only do unemployed men find the idea of working in ‘female’ professions like nursing unappealing, but that their (predominantly female) partners discouraged them from applying to roles in those industries too. Similarly, in her study of care workers in the UK, Dr. Lydia Hayes noted that many care workers saw their femininity as a core part of their work, and as a result saw male co-workers as inherently less able to deliver in the same way and to the same standard.

Even when it is understood as work, the low economic value we put on carers and the work they do impacts starkly on the conditions under which they are expected to work. Social care’s reliance on temporary workers means that low wages and low security place carers themselves at significant risk of in-work poverty, as well as vulnerable to what Dr. Hayes calls institutional brutality; zero hour contracts, legally restrictive working practices, and scant regard for workers’ wellbeing.

Even as the struggle for gender equality in the workplace has become more high profile, particularly when related to traditionally white collar professions, this systematic (and systemic) exploitation of low status female workers has remained mostly below the radar. This, in spite of relatively high profile cases showing that large employers had been paying care workers below minimum wage. As such, women continue to do the bulk of caring, both paid and unpaid, and in doing so subsidise public care at the cost of their employment, time, and wellbeing, in a way that tells us so much about what we currently value from work, and how we reward it.

Automation & Care

The advent of the artificially intelligent worker, or at least the AI-augmented worker, implicitly asks us to consider what it means to be human at work, and by extension, what work means to us as humans. In that context, it is fitting that the work which makes the most demands on our humanity, and in which our humanity is most candidly on display, might also be the most resistant to automation.

While the conversation around automation has shifted somewhat from workers being replaced wholesale by technology, to a debate which is more focused on how technology might augment human workers, it is fair to say that some jobs are more immediately vulnerable to automation than others. This not only covers traditionally blue collar work like driving or manufacturing, but also conventionally high status professions like the law.

Caring work is often highlighted as an example of a profession not likely to be replaced in the short term, relying on skills like empathy, judgment and compassion. In other words, relying on characteristics which we understand as uniquely ‘human’, and which technology is unlikely to be able to replicate in the short term. Some of this might prove to be hubris, an overconfidence in what our ‘humanity’ can provide that technology cannot. But, if we consider caring as at least more resistant to automation than many other professions, it’s also fair to assume that as opportunities in some professions wither or even disappear, and new ones spring up to fill some of the gaps, the profile of care-giving might rise.

In 2017, only 11.4% of registered Nurses in the UK were male.

Projections in the US show caregiving to be among the occupations likely to see the most job growth over the next 10 years, a development which may contribute to a re-evaluation of the way gender intersects with labour. Because while manufacturing, driving and professional services are often seen as typically ‘male’, these new roles are in industries and sectors traditionally seen as female. Attracting more men into caring professions has long been a recruitment challenge the relevant sectors have sought to address, without much success. This deep-seated aversion to men taking up caring jobs is perhaps best summed up by a New York Times report which suggested that the wives of unemployed men who considered applying for ‘feminine’ jobs discouraged their application. But, as this work becomes more available, and more necessary, could it not represent a huge opportunity to challenge gendered preconceptions of work and to challenge our collective understanding of what work we value and how?

It is our provocation that the potent combination of automation, an ageing population, and a crisis in social care, will elevate the status of care-giving as work, and with it the working conditions for care-givers. More workers will be needed to care for an ageing population, more men will become care-givers as other more easily automated forms of work dry up, and the gendered expectations around caring work will diminish to the point of irrelevance, leading to a fundamentally more equal working world. As Elizabeth Weingarten wrote in her article The Last Human Job, “if care jobs become the last human jobs, could that encourage employers and policymakers to recognise and value it as the economically critical work that it is?”.



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