Essential workers: Unpaid caregivers and the future of work

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to consider what work is essential to our society. It's time we start including caregiving on that list.

Bryn Huxley-Reicher

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

In the past year, Americans have learned the value of essential workers – the medical personnel, teachers, grocery store workers and others – whose jobs are crucial to the functioning of our society. The pandemic has brought little attention, however, to millions of Americans whose work is just as important but who aren’t compensated: unpaid caregivers.

Caregiving has always been vital, if hidden, work, and never more so than during the pandemic. Older Americans find themselves vulnerable and often alone, and millions of parents struggle to care for children while schools and day care centers remain closed.

In June of last year, more than one fifth of Americans worked as unpaid caregivers. Yet the work of caregiving goes largely unsupported, overlooked and unrecognized. Ensuring another person’s physical and mental health, whether they are young or old, is an awesome responsibility. Caregivers help children become healthy adults and help those who can’t take care of themselves independently meet their needs. Caregiving reduces social isolation, which has significant, tangible physical and mental health benefits. The tens of millions of caregivers in this country are essential to the lives of tens of millions of Americans.

Caregiving is only going to get more essential. The present problem – surveys estimate that about one fifth of Americans who require help with daily living have unmet needs – is only going to get worse as the U.S. population gets older. The number of people over 65 is estimated to double by 2060, and in some states might double in much less time. That means more working-age adults will have to take on caregiving roles.

At the same time, however, change is coming to many other corners of our working world. As our society becomes increasingly automated, fewer people will be needed to produce, transport and distribute the things we need and use. Many of the jobs and industries that exist right now will be replaced by new roles in new fields, creating the opportunity for new ways of organizing our economy.

But caregiving is a job that’s not going away. In a world where fewer people are needed to keep the lights on or to get enough food to every table, more of us will be able to devote more of our energy to taking care of each other.

But the United States is not prepared for that shift. There is no formal support for unpaid caregivers: no training programs, no insurance category and almost no way to get monetary support for the work.

Included in the latest COVID-19 relief package is an expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which increases the size of the credit and extends it to low-income families, helping struggling Americans take care of the most vulnerable among us during their most formative years.

That’s a good start, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem: as a nation, we don’t yet treat caregiving as useful and productive work. We need to value the benefits caregiving provides to society (even beyond their huge monetary value) and treat caregivers accordingly, providing financial and systemic support to caregivers to ensure that those in our society who need assistance with the day-to-day can live in comfort and dignity.

Photo credit: susanjanegolding via Flickr, CC BY 2.0


Bryn Huxley-Reicher

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group