This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD. To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.
The OECD Forum’s virtual event Women at The Frontline of the Recovery will presciently focus attention among policymakers and the public stakeholders alike on the unique relationship between the age demographic mega-trend and the essential policies needed for OECD economies to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps chief among these is the role of caregiving for older adults linked to the longevity transformation that now has the global population over-60 at 1 billion—and doubling by mid-century—with the fastest growing segment of over-80 representing those most in need of care. Moreover, the parallel trend of all OECD economies with more-old-than-young is also profoundly affecting the character of work itself.
But it is the stunning complement of women in these caregiving roles—both formal and informal—that has become even more transparent as the result of COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen images of women taking the brunt of the job—the OECD’s own Beyond Applause recognising the harsh, if emotional, reality. This only accelerates the trends that existed before the pandemic. Around 70–80% of impaired older adults globally are cared for at home by family—and up to 81% of these caregivers are women. Furthermore, the majority of professional caregivers—a growing, recognised and increasingly demanding sector—are also women, filling needs that underscore the huge and growing gap between our capacity to care and available caregivers.
Yet too often professional caregivers are not given the appropriate respect and status for their incredible mix of soft and technical skills, their societal contributions and their extraordinary dedication to others.
The statistics are alarming. Across OECD countries, the number of workers needed to care for older adults must increase by 60% through 2040, if we are to maintain the current ratio of caregivers to older people. That is equivalent to 13.5 million new care workers. Of course, it also shows why elder caregiving is one of the fastest growing sectors in the United States today. Consider that in Germany, the demand for elder caregiving increased 34% between 2015 and 2018 alone. And we know already that in Singapore, the care workforce needs to grow by 130% over the next decade, while Hong Kong predicts that an additional 240,000 care workers are needed over the next three decades. The United States faces a national shortage of over 150,000 care workers by 2030, rising to 355,000 by 2040.
Yet too often professional caregivers are not given the appropriate respect and status for their incredible mix of soft and technical skills, their societal contributions and their extraordinary dedication to others. Training and standards for caregiving are uneven or nonexistent, which can lead to uncertainty for job seekers, care professionals and care recipients and their families. Finally, and in part as a result of these factors, there are simply not enough people joining the care workforce to match the immense scale of the need. Our capacity to care across the OECD and globally is exploding, even as it transforms to become central to healthcare itself.
Read more: A gender-equal pandemic recovery needs a gender-equal health workforce by Roopa Dhatt, Executive Director & Co-Founder, Women in Global Health
Meeting this challenge will require collaboration and commitment from every sector of society. Policymakers can lead the way by focusing on five key areas:
- Recognise caregivers as vitally needed, highly skilled professionals. Caregivers within the long-term care workforce (working at home and in more traditional facilities) are skilled professionals, and it is time they are recognised and respected as such. This is even more urgent given the number of women in both the informal and formal care workforce who are under-recognised and under-valued. Policy leaders can help by creating designated events or milestones to recognise professional caregivers, launching awareness campaigns and discussing care professionals’ contributions in public appearances. When was the last time the US Congress, EU Parliament or the Japanese Diet held Public Hearings on Elder Caregiving as a part of the healthcare transformation and profoundly contributing to GDP through the Silver Economy itself?
- Value the care profession for its contributions to societies and economies. The OECD’s Beyond Applause initiative is an important start. As it moves from emotion and awareness to action and policy change, care professionals—especially women providing care for older adults—must be included as vital contributors to overall health system readiness and society’s ability to care for its most vulnerable.
- Create clear standards for high-quality care and training. High-quality care starts with training the care workforce. There are already identified, recognised standards for the growing care sector that is central to 21st century age-friendly realities. Now, policymakers can clearly establish these standards around training and care, recognising that there are different levels of care but a universal demand for quality. And we can also extend the caregiver role to monitoring that could assist in earlier detection, prevention and wellness strategies for such areas as vision health, osteoporosis and fragility fracture deterioration, cognitive decline and mental and emotional challenges.
- Recognise professional caregiving as an engine for job creation and the COVID-19 recovery. The care sector can create jobs and strengthen local workforces overall, relieving the care burden on families and helping family members to stay in the workforce. This is especially true for the 48–60-or-so-year-old adult daughter who is also working. Policymakers can create or facilitate programmes that equip job seekers to enter the care workforce, such as partnerships with universities, community colleges or vocational schools. These programmes should also consider pools of talent that are too often overlooked, especially older workers who have not seen the same level of employment recovery as other demographics.
- Link employment and economic growth to the care sector. Working past 65 is not only good economics in the OECD and all aging societies, but it is a wellness plan for all of us as we age. Remaining active and engaged, including through employment, brings mental and emotional health value as well.
Across OECD countries, the future of societies and economies depends in large part on our ability to provide efficient, high-quality care to the rapidly growing population of older adults. Policymakers, together with the private sector, non-profits, and health system leaders, should establish this as a priority as we recover from the pandemic and seek to strengthen our societies for the age-related healthcare challenges exposed and exacerbated by COVID-19.
Read more on gender inequality in the caregiving sector in OECD's Policy Responses to Covid: Caregiving in crisis: Gender inequality in paid and unpaid work during COVID-19.