What’s the fastest grow­ing occu­pa­tion in the UK, quiz-fiends? Well, the smart-Alecs amongst you will point out that with unem­ploy­ment ris­ing, there’s very lit­tle growth in any part of the labour mar­ket. But you will have slipped into the trap of pre­sum­ing that the work that counts is paid work. Unpaid care work for fam­ily mem­bers is grow­ing and grow­ing. The 2001 cen­sus found that there are 5.8 mil­lion car­ers in the UK (doing work esti­mated to be worth around £87 bil­lion to the econ­omy), and this is pro­jected to rise to 9 mil­lion by 2037 (Car­ers uk, 2009). Today, 4th Decem­ber 2009 is Car­ers’ Rights Day. Car­ers are a hid­den pop­u­la­tion, atom­ised by the nature of their care­giv­ing com­mit­ments and too busy jug­gling to shout loudly. But they do some­thing impressive.

When you become a carer (and if you haven’t already, the chances are you will for a time at least – there are 2.3 mil­lion new car­ers each year), you’ll work hard. You’ll strain your back lift­ing; you’ll be tired from wak­ing at night to give med­i­cine. You’ll learn how to man­age com­plex treat­ment sched­ules. You’ll try not to scream at the indi­vid­u­als rep­re­sent­ing the insti­tu­tions of the state who are sup­posed to help, but who ask you to fill in another form; who can­cel your appoint­ment at the last minute so you didn’t need to have a morn­ing off work. Car­ing will make you cry. It will give you ‘ugly feel­ings’ (Ngai, 2009), make you resent (once, some­times, often) the per­son you care for and will cause your other rela­tion­ships to suf­fer. You will gain new capac­i­ties, but at some cost. You will need praise, but you won’t get it from your boss. Life will be some­thing to be coped with as well as some­thing to enjoy.

Carer, by Kai Hendry

Carer, by Kai Hendry

And yes, as a form of work it is com­pli­cated. It is unpaid, occur­ring in the pri­vate sphere, dom­i­nated by dis­courses of love and duty (Lyon, 2010), and car­ers are casu­ally treated by wel­fare pol­icy as being nei­ther work­ing nor unem­ployed. For exam­ple, car­ers allowance is awarded to those car­ing for 35+ hours per week. Once a carer starts claim­ing their pen­sion, the allowance is removed even as the care duties remain, and so it isn’t a sub­sti­tute for earned income. At best, it seems to be a sym­bolic pay­ment, a rather miserly dona­tion for being nice. Many car­ers com­bine care with paid work (60% of women, 74% of men of work­ing age who care do this, accord­ing to Yean­dle, 2008), and part of their care tasks may be to man­age paid care­givers and ser­vice providers. Car­ing is not simple.

Glucks­mann (2005) argues it’s not the loca­tion of an activ­ity in the pub­lic sphere that means it should be called work, but the social rela­tions that make it up. This means dif­fer­ent con­fig­u­ra­tions between state, mar­ket, fam­ily and vol­un­tary sec­tor give rise to dif­fer­ent modes of organ­is­ing care, and dif­fer­ent inter­ac­tions between paid and unpaid care (Lyon, 2010). Unpaid care work is not sep­a­rate from mar­ket or state pro­vi­sion, rather the need for it is con­tin­gent on what sorts of other pro­vi­sion is pos­si­ble or avail­able in a country.

How­ever, the for­mal organ­i­sa­tion of care work is but­tressed by dis­courses around who should care. Love and duty are in com­ple­ment (and may be in ten­sion) within a socio-cultural con­text that says that to be a good parent/wife/son/whatever is to take on the respon­si­bil­ity and activ­ity of care; in the UK this impulse is enhanced by how alter­na­tive forms of care­giv­ing are lim­ited. And per­haps this is right: the qual­ity of life of the per­son being cared for may be greater like this (although Nel­son and Eng­land (2002) raise the ques­tion of whether paid-for care might well be morally right). It worth not­ing that this is not an inevitable, uncon­testable moral posi­tion, but one that is reg­u­larly repro­duced in media, gov­ern­ment pol­icy, by car­ers and those cared for as some­thing which ought to be. The nat­u­ral­i­sa­tion of unpaid care as the way of show­ing love tends to over­ride the dif­fi­cul­ties of being a carer, and may be used to pro­duce ‘fic­tive’ fam­ily ties when paid care is brought into the home.

Recog­nis­ing care as work helps to under­stand the com­plex­ity of what care is, even though some car­ers would resist the label work, see­ing car­ing as a gift of love. Think­ing about care as work may help sort out the mess over ben­e­fits: it’s work, it needs sup­port, and respite. And it may offer sta­tus to car­ers by acknowl­edg­ing that there’s more to car­ing than lov­ing. And that might offer car­ers a recog­ni­tion that what they do has sta­tus; it’s not a nat­ural gift and it doesn’t come for free.


  1. Car­ers UK (2009) Facts About Car­ers.
  2. Glucks­mann, M. (2005) ‘Shift­ing Bound­aries and Inter­con­nec­tions: Extend­ing the ‘Total Social Organ­i­sa­tion of Labour’’. In Pet­tinger, L., Parry, J. Tay­lor, R. F. and Glucks­mann, M. (eds) (2005) A New Soci­ol­ogy of Work? Oxford: Black­well Publishing/The Soci­o­log­i­cal Review.
  3. Lyon, Dawn (forth­com­ing, 2010) ‘Inter­sec­tions and Bound­aries of Work and Non-work: The Case of Elder Care in Com­par­a­tive Euro­pean Per­spec­tive’ Euro­pean Soci­eties 12(1): 1–23.
  4. Nel­son, J. A. and Eng­land, P. (2002) ‘Fem­i­nist Philoso­phies of Love and Work’. Hypa­tia. Vol. 17, no 2 (spring) 1–18.
  5. Ngai, S. (2005) Ugly Feel­ings. Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press. Cam­bridge, Mass. and London.
  6. Yean­dle, S. (2008) Trans­form­ing Lives: Time for a New Social Con­tract for Care. Paper pre­sented at Car­ers UK con­fer­ence on Car­ers in Com­mu­ni­ties: The local trans­for­ma­tion agenda.