The personal is (still not) political - What does the fashionable word ‘care economy’ actually mean?

door with a private sign

In the current debate surrounding the future of work the care economy has become an issue worthy of discussion. ‘The concept of the care economy refers to paid and unpaid work directly related to the everyday care of other people but also to the work involved in care provision. Such work consists of turning standardised and industrially produced goods and services into something individual consumers with diverse needs can use in and outside of the home on a daily basis. It includes rearing children, nursing those in need of care, as well as other forms of work based around human relations. This work and the way it is organised are an essential factor in defining the quality of life in all societies’ (Madörin, 2001). Care economy work flows are far harder to plan than those in other productive sectors of the economy. Mascha Madörin criticises how narrow definitions of the economy fail to recognise the economic importance of care when compiling statistics. As a result, we can only estimate the amount of time invested in care.

The private remains private

Schilliger (2010) argues that, in spite of the demands of feminists that ‘the private’ be recognised as political, (unpaid) care work is not statistically recognised because it is still seen as belonging to the personal realm. This is due to a narrow definition of work and an even narrower understanding of the economic sphere. Economic activities within the home, care work and economic processes related to the informal economy and the non-profit sector are not generally taken into account. If the care economy is to become more than a ‘secondary economy’ and so part of a larger whole the focus will have to move towards work in its entirety (Notz 2005). In other words, the concept of work must be expanded beyond the instrumentally bound, more or less well paid, goal-oriented work found in the productive economy and the service sector. Work also exists outside of paid employment (defined as any form of work directed at earning a salary). Unpaid work includes domestic work and care; raising children; caring for the elderly, sick or disabled; it can be related to consumption or subsistence, civil involvement, voluntary political, social and cultural activities, or self-help groups amongst others. Traditionally, such work is not seen as labour because it is viewed as belonging to the realm of freedom as opposed to the realm of necessity[1]. Such work is beyond the realm of material production and due to the gendered division of labour it is still mainly one gender that is expected to take on this work. We live in a society that produces an unequal division of paid and unpaid work, of wealth and participation. Hierarchical gender relations are strongly influenced by these inequalities and the division of labour into unpaid and paid work.

Focusing on the whole economy

A concept of labour capable of analysing the entire amount of labour undertaken, including both paid and unpaid work, must take into account the fact that people work in different places. People do not only work in industry, in small and medium sized companies, public administration or alternative economic projects and companies. They also work in social and health care institutions, welfare organisations and associations promoting civil engagement and voluntary work, social projects and naturally also domestic and care work in families or in other forms of living. Such a concept of labour will require a broader economic approach that equally considers salaried employment, community oriented activities, care, subsistence-oriented and domestic work. More than just redefining work this would mean redefining the concept of what constitutes economic activity. Such a concept would have to include all economically relevant areas and necessarily recognise the importance of work invested in building collective structures in which people can once again become independent and active. It would mean recognising the connection between unpaid and paid work and overcoming the current separation between economically relevant and (apparently) irrelevant areas of activity. Today’s gender relations are structured in such a way that the unpaid work in families (and other forms of shared living) and by social organisations (both of which are done primarily by women) form the basis on which market labour (the work done by men) becomes possible. On the other hand it is salaried employment that means unpaid domestic and care work can even exist. Fundamental economic realities can therefore only be understood by widening the focus to the whole economy and the total amount of labour and by taking into account the different work and situations of women and men in the various areas of economic activity. It is clear from this that the struggle between capital and work does not only take place inside the factory.

Care work remains women’s work

Women bear the brunt of paid and unpaid work in the care economy. Due to the current global crisis these problems are worsening and because of this the number of people in need of paid and unpaid help is also going to increase. As a result, the amount of work taken on by this sector is bound to rise. The damages and risks in the form of unemployment and poverty the capitalist system creates are only insufficiently compensated for by the welfare state. Social and care work that is dominated more and more by criteria of economic efficiency, cannot cope with these growing needs. Madörin estimates that in Switzerland 4 out of 5 working hours undertaken by women consists of care work, whereas the figure for men is 2 out of 5. Only one in ten male workers are employed in the care economy, whereas it employs 1 in 3 female workers. In Switzerland seven times more unpaid labour is undertaken than labour which is paid for. In Germany the situation is not very different. Unpaid care work is encouraged through calls to community spirit, while paid care work is made worse by cuts to social welfare or dramatic reductions in salaries (so-called ‘€1 an hour’ jobs and voluntary work). The amount of care work done without pay rises proportionately to the amount of jobs lost in salaried care. As the seventh German family report clearly states: we can expect a ‘Copernican change’ in the organisation of care, because in democratic societies a return to the gendered single-earner model is no longer possible. Still, ‘this development [the rise in care work] mostly affects female family members, even if men are becoming more involved’ (BMFSFJ 2006, p. 170). Therefore, even though salaried employment for women has risen, women are neither supported by the state nor by men in dealing with this huge rise in unpaid work. As we can see, there is currently no plan to develop an infrastructure of public care provision.

The return of the servants

More common it seems – at least for women with higher salaries – are servant models in which white German women profit from illegalised women or women coming from poorer countries. This is no solution to the problem, because this labour is also privatised. Care work is commercialised and turned into a very low-paid commodity that can be ‘bought’ on the services market. Not only does this help maintain a gender-based division of labour, it also leads to new subdivisions among women. Lily Braun’s words still remain true today: ‘the worker sells a part or even the greatest part of his labour, but the servant sells his person’ (Braun 1979, p. 46). At least at the time of this women’s movement, servants’ associations fighting for the rights of these extremely exploited women existed; today there are no such organisations. Furthermore, there is currently no debate from an emancipative standpoint as to whether growth in the domestic services sector is at all desirable. Instead, the new servant society is celebrated as an innovation. A fact which is completely disregarded, but nonetheless remains a truism, is that care for the elderly or children depends on qualified carers who must also be paid appropriately. If the division of labour between the ‘breadwinner’ and housewife (and/or supplementary earner) in the nuclear family can only be changed at the cost of other women, then it becomes necessary to reopen the critical discussion of the nuclear family which was held in Germany in the 1970s. At the same time, it is equally important to form a critique of the way work is organised and of the concept of what constitutes labour.

Women as part-time carers

Such a model is not possible for people on low salaries. These individuals are forced to do unpaid care work next to their paid jobs, which frequently costs them valuable time during which they could be earning a living. Over the past few decades women’s integration into the labour market has been mostly through part-time jobs and precarious working conditions. The majority of women (and men) who are about able to survive from what they earn do not work part-time. Most women working part-time are employed in the services sector and even here they are mostly employed in care related work. Consequently, women work in sectors which generally place a large amount of pressure on workers to perform but do not offer the possibility to earn a living wage. State measures in Germany such as tax breaks for families where both partners work (Ehegattensplitting), or subsidies for taking care of children (Betreuungsgeld) planned for 2013 are likely to make women – at least temporarily – responsible for all unpaid care work. Betreuungsgeld will not give women freedom of choice as assumed, because there are not enough day-care facilities for all children and so only very few women are provided with choice. The fact that women often stop working after giving birth reinforces traditional nuclear family role models, with women as mothers and housewives and men as fathers and breadwinners. This leads to discrimination against single parent households and parenting arrangements outside of the traditional nuclear family. It also discriminates against working parents who simply want to have their children taken care of whilst they work as they believe children should be able to profit from qualified educators and have the chance to learn social skills.


Constructive criticism of traditional economic concepts and the capitalist patriarchal society of work can only be developed with a clear question in mind: how can a different and better life and more meaningful relations between life and work be achieved?

In the end it is about overcoming alienation in work in order to enable men and women to fully take part in life. Therefore criticism must go hand in hand with the formulation of a new idea of utopia. We have to ask ourselves how we wish to live and work (together) in future. The aim should be to organise work in such a way that paid employment, domestic work and work in social, political, cultural, artistic and community oriented sectors is done collectively and given equal importance. Work, care and responsibility would have to be equally divided between men and women. Ideally it would be possible to harmonise the time, space and content of work and to overcome the division between what is considered work and what is not. Approaches to work organised along these lines can already be found in alternative and co-operative enterprises and projects.


  • Braun, Lily (1979): Die weiblichen Dienstboten, in: Gisela Brinker-Gabler: Frauenarbeit und Beruf, Frankfurt/Main.
  • Madörin, Mascha (2001): Care-Ökonomie – ein blinder Fleck in der Wirtschaftstheorie, in: Widerspruch, H. 40, pp. 41 – 45. 
  • Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich (1978): MEW, Vol. 25, Berlin. 
  • Notz, Gisela (2005): Arbeit – mehr als eine Beschäftigung, die Geld einbringt, Berlin: ver.di.

[1]    ‘The realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production.’ (Marx 1971, p. 820).