It's time to pivot to the care economy and invest in care

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Person supervises baby crawling on grass. Image credit: Jordan Rowland/Unsplash

So far no government has talked about addressing the world's first "she-cession" by spending more on the social infrastructure we all rely on to provide care to each other.

The care economy includes -- but isn't limited to -- health care, child care, elder care and education, sectors that generated jobs before the pandemic and will expand afterward because of Canada's aging population.

Full disclosure: "she-cession" is a term I coined last March to capture how women's hard-won gains in employment equity over the decades have melted away in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the outbreak, the caring economy accounted for more than 12 per cent of Canada's GDP and 21 per cent of all paid jobs, a virtual economic engine. Afterward, we'll need more care workers, and we'll need to replace workers who are aging out of these sectors.

What's the plan to ensure our quality of life doesn't deteriorate? What's the plan to value the people we know are essential to our well-being?

We may love them. We may need them. But we systemically devalue women's work, both paid and unpaid. Maybe we do this precisely because women do so much unpaid work.

And there has been lots more of it to do during the pandemic, because of school closings, remote learning and reduced availability of child care. That may be why more than 100,000 women aged 20 and over -- 10 times more women than men -- have dropped out of the paid labour market: they need to provide care that isn't available on the market.

Statistics Canada has also revealed that the poorest-paid workers have lost the most economic ground during the pandemic. Whether now with or without jobs, the poorest paid are also disproportionately people of colour, recent immigrants, and young and old workers, and disproportionately women in all categories.

Canada was already starting on its back foot when it comes to capacity to serve basic needs. In a comparison of access to early childhood education in 2008, Canada came dead last in a parade of 25 OECD nations.

It is unclear how many of Canada's roughly five million children aged 0 to 12 are in paid versus unpaid care, but there is space for just 27 per cent of them in regulated, licensed facilities. The OECD average is 70 per cent.

Our young families, on whom everyone's future depends, deserve better. And they deserve more true choice in their work and parenting options. As the labour force stats suggest, there is now less choice.

It seems that Plan A and Plan B for most provinces, which are in charge of schooling and child care, is just to have women figure it out -- and work harder in paid and unpaid jobs. How's that been working for you? And by "you" I don't just mean women.

Fewer women in the paid labour force means less purchasing power and less business for everyone. How will that help recovery?

The pandemic escalated widespread recognition of an undeniable fact about a country with an aging population: the caring economy holds up the essential economy. We need child care, elder care, health care and education today and in the future. People can't feed themselves -- and the economic machine -- through their paid work and ignore those too young, sick or old to do paid work.

Any job can be a great job. The social infrastructure on which we all depend will be a growing driver of GDP for decades, the result of population aging and the needs of a shrinking but increasingly valuable working-age cohort.

The care economy could power a better life, not just a bigger economy, if we address issues revealed by the pandemic. Just as manufacturing generated Canada's middle class from the 1950s to the 1970s, the care sector could be the source of our next middle class.

Economist Armine Yalnizyan is the Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers and a member of the task force on women in the economy to advise the country's first female finance minister as she sets the pandemic budget which will be released April 19.

A version of this article was first published in The Globe and Mail.

Image credit: Jordan Rowland/Unsplash

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