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The Future of Care

Framing Insights for Care Workers Recognition Month

April 11, 2024

Four years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on care work and the many ways that care infrastructure—or the lack thereof—plays an important role in all of our lives. From greater public appreciation of care workers to calls for better working conditions and support, the pandemic shifted public attention to care work in an unprecedented way. This Care Workers Recognition Month, we’re taking a closer look at the ways in which public thinking about care work is shifting and how we can reframe the conversation and build demand for a more just society.

As part of our Culture Change Project and our forthcoming research on reframing work and labor, we’ve been tracking the extent to which care work—and care workers—are part of public thinking. One of the most noticeable changes in public discourse during the height of the pandemic was the usage of terms like “essential” and “frontline” to describe care workers. Although we’ve largely shifted away from that terminology, we’re finding that care work and care workers continue to be thought of as integral to the functioning of our society. However, this acknowledgment is only the beginning of what is needed, and many forms of care work remain largely undervalued. If we want to change the care economy for the better, we need a deeper narrative and cultural shift that leads to systemic changes—like better pay and working conditions for care workers—and makes it clear that care is part of our collective social responsibility.

The continued salience of care work provides us with a unique window of opportunity to better communicate how society can support the crucial work of care workers. For example, we’ve been tracking public thinking about quality care—specifically, whether “quality” is a function of individual carers’ personality traits or things like working conditions and the environments in which care takes place. Although our research suggests that there has been an overall increase in people’s understanding of the importance of structural and environmental contributors to care, that understanding is still quite incomplete.

If we want to work toward lasting change, we must expand the mindsets at play when we think and talk about the care economy. Next month, we’ll be sharing new research featuring emerging recommendations for talking about care work, along with a larger body of research dedicated to framing work and labor more broadly. In the meantime, here are a few tips for helping to build a better narrative about care work and care workers:

  1. Explaining the working conditions that help create quality care is key to building support for change. People frequently talk about care workers as “angels.” By focusing on the personalities of care workers, people assume we just need to find the “right,” naturally caring people instead of improving the pay and conditions of the job. If we instead emphasize the kinds of supports that are necessary, we can help shift the focus away from individual personality traits and toward real policies that can make a difference. For example, emphasizing concepts like the value of a living wage might help illustrate the ways in which labor structures and systems play a role in the provision of high-quality care. 
  2. Emphasizing how our economic system is designed can help counter naturalistic reasoning about care work, such as the idea that women are naturally drawn to care work because they are innately more caring. When people hear facts or statistics about which people are most likely to work in certain jobs, they tend to fall back on assumptions to make sense of them—like “women are naturally more drawn to care work than men.” We need to explain such patterns and disparities. Americans are increasingly recognizing that the economy is designed by people (not just a naturally-occurring phenomenon), and that government and policy play an important role in shaping it. Together, we can help extend this thinking to the care sectors. By more explicitly explaining the structural factors that shape who performs the majority of care work and the extent to which it is valued, we can start to identify inlets for solutions.
  3. Illustrating how the care sectors are shaped by and reinforce systemic racism can make it easier to identify needed changes. By naming and explaining the ways that systemic racism continues to exist in the care sectors in the form of disparate opportunities, hiring, pay, exposure to risk, and more, we can start to build understanding about the kind of changes that are necessary to protect care workers and create a stronger care workforce.

In the coming months, we’ll be releasing new, comprehensive research about how Americans think about work and labor, including more tips to improve communication about care work and care workers.

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