A cartoon making the rounds on social media showed eight professionals, including a cook, a driver, and a teacher hired by children for a day so that their mother could relax on Mother’s Day.

This very much sums up the importance of a care economy, especially as an enabler for increasing women’s participation in the workforce.

Despite being aware of its magnitude as an economy and society, we tend to undervalue unpaid care work.

Research cites a lack of focus on the care economy as one of the main reasons for the attrition of women in the workforce or entrepreneurship. Social norms expect women to be primary caregivers irrespective of whether they perform paid work or not.

The pandemic further increased the time women spend on unpaid work. Scholars such as Ashwini Deshpande showed how the gender gap in unpaid work significantly worsened in the first year of the pandemic.

NSO’s Time Use Survey reports that both employed and unemployed women in India spend 83 per cent and 78 per cent more time, respectively than men on unpaid domestic and care activities.

Time spent in unpaid care affects how much time women can spend on paid economic activities and leisure.

Shifting this disproportionate burden of care away from women requires changes at multiple levels. The central issue of who must be cared for and who provides that care is assumed to be the sole responsibility of private individuals (read women) and families. The structural and institutional context here can be decisive for the future of work and the quality of life of all demographics.

Similarly, ubiquitous local provision of affordable and quality care is even more critical for low-income working women whose compulsion to work may leave a care deficit for their own families.

Wherein they are unable to provide adequate care at home and deploy a range of informal practices to fill in this care deficit e.g. elder siblings taking care of younger ones, skipping school, and doing household chores, leaving kids with neighbours, or elderly kin.

As India becomes the most populous country in the world, there will be huge social and economic implications of the care deficit, disproportionate burden of care work on women, and lack of institutional mechanisms to provide high-quality and affordable paid care. Spectacular improvements in health and life expectancy, reductions in fertility, and smaller families make this need more critical.

A national policy

Bringing care work into the formal economy is important. An overarching National Care Policy, that enables adequate provision of affordable, quality, and where required subsidised care for all age groups, could be a starting point.

However, implementing such a policy will need robust public and private collaboration. While the government’s role is much debated and discussed, the role of the private sector is often overlooked.

The private sector can play a crucial role in enabling the provision of high-quality and affordable care services.

Private sector investment is required for the rapid skilling of young women and men on par with international standards to become certified childcare and geriatric care, professionals. Along with a rapidly increasing blue-collar workforce, build a highly skilled red-collar workforce adept in providing age-appropriate care and support. There is an exploding global demand for professional caregivers.

Studies suggest that OECD countries alone would need 13.5 million new caregivers by 2040. This presents an opportunity to create dignified job opportunities for the young fulfilling not just domestic but global demand.

Roy is Senior Adviser, NITI Aayog and Mission Director, Women Entrepreneurship Platform; and Sonal Jaitly, Gender equality and social inclusion Lead