For some, this is a time of unprecedented prosperity and growth. Yet the gap between haves and have-nots is widening. Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet continue to control the same amount of wealth as the bottom 50% of Americans combined. Our natural life-support systems are threatened, with climatologists echoing the same refrain: “It’s worse than you think.” Poverty seems intractable as we stare straight into an oncoming economic downturn; speculation is rampant, and so are destructive financial practices and policies.
It hasn’t always been like this. In fact, we’ve chosen for it to be this way.
Capitalism and socialism came out of early industrial times in the 1700s and 1800s. Both theories were actually attempts to move toward a more just economic system: Adam Smith challenged “mercantilism,” which was the control of economics by kings and court officials, and Karl Marx in turn challenged capitalism and the exploitation of workers and peasants by the growing bourgeoise.
But instead of providing solutions, these current economic systems are making things worse. We need to develop a new economics capable of meeting the challenges of our 21st century post-industrial age.
To solve these problems, and for a healthy post-industrial economy, we need to address critical matters ignored in old thinking. A starting point is leaving behind the gendered system of values we inherited from earlier times, which devalues anything stereotypically associated with women: educating children, caring for the elderly, and keeping clean and healthy home environments—which includes our planet.
In other words, we need to care more about caring.
The devaluation of caring and caregiving as “soft” or “feminine” is integral to what I call a domination system. This system ranks man over man, man over woman, race over race, religion over religion, and so forth. And even though it is less pronounced now than when capitalism and socialism were developed, it still persists today.
Although there are already nearly 3 million US jobs in the home-care sector, home-care workers are still significantly underpaid; the median pay is $11.57 per hour. Not surprisingly, home care has an immense amount of turnover—clocked at 82% in 2018—largely due to low pay, lack of benefits, unmanageable hours, and the demands of the job.
And paid care is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the latest national surveys, approximately 43.5 million caregivers provide unpaid care to an adult or child in the United States. On top of the financial strain this puts on the caregivers (most of whom spend around $7,000 per year out of pocket on caregiving expenses), there is also the impact on their emotional and physical health.
This system of gendered values is a major obstacle to meeting our mounting social, environmental, and economic challenges. We need to go beyond both capitalism and socialism and move toward a partnership system—one where relations are based on mutual respect, accountability, and caring. This will yield the kind of economic changes urgently needed at this time of unprecedented economic, environmental, and social challenge.
We need what I call a caring economy of partnerism not only for human and environmental reasons, but for financial reasons. Findings from neuroscience show that caring for people, starting in early childhood, is key to producing the “high-quality human capital” essential for the post-industrial economy. The very fabric of economic health is human-to-human care. And caring for our natural environment is increasingly a matter of life or death.
That said, striving for a partnership system does not mean leaving everything about capitalism and socialism behind. We need a capitalistic free market (which we do not have now) as well as socially focused government policies. Using this base, we have to go further to recognize that the real wealth of a nation, and of our world, is not financial (which we see every day as stock markets seesaw up and down), but consists of the contributions of people and of nature.
The more sustainable and equitable economy essential for our post-industrial age cannot be achieved in isolation from the larger culture in which economic systems are embedded. Our challenge is therefore a systems-change issue: We need to give primacy to caring and demote domination.
Fortunately, there is movement in this direction. To continue moving forward, we need a new cultural and economic analysis that, unlike conventional ones, no longer ignores the majority of humanity: women and children. Here are some immediate steps we can take toward an economy of caring:
Redefine productive work. As automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence replace more jobs previously performed by people, caring for and educating people is economically essential. Adequately rewarding caring in markets, communities, and households will also imbue work with meaning—something often lacking in domination systems, where it is primarily motivated by fear and the artificial creation of scarcity.
Change how we measure economic health. Current measures such as gross domestic product (GDP) and gross national product (GNP) include “productive” work activities that harm and take life, like making and selling cigarettes and fast foods (and the resulting medical and funeral costs). Not only that, they fail to subtract the damage caused by activities that harm our natural life-support systems.
However, current economic measures fail to count the hard work of people who care for children, the sick, and the elderly in households. This needs to change.
The Center for Partnership Studies developed social wealth economic indicators (SWEIs) that go beyond GDP. SWEIs include environmental conditions, health, education, and poverty, as well as giving special attention to the status of women and children as predictors of both quality of life and long-term economic success.
Acknowledge caring as a profitable activity. The economic value of care work is huge. For example, an Australian study found it would be 50% of the reported GDP. Economic practices and policies that value caring pay big dividends—not only in human and environmental terms, but also in financial terms. For example, companies regularly listed in Working Mother or the Fortune 500 as the best firms to work for have a substantially higher return to their investors. Countries such as Sweden, Finland, and Norway prove that investing in caring policies also pays extremely well for nations. We should note that these are not socialist societies; they have a strong market economy, and often call themselves “caring societies.” What distinguishes them is that they orient more to the partnership system: There is more democracy in both the family and the state, as well as greater gender equity.
Invest in high-quality childcare and early education. If we are to have the high-quality human capital needed for the post-industrial era, we must recognize what both psychology and neuroscience tell us: Human development largely depends on the quality of care and early education that children receive. Strong social and fiscal support for the caregiving work performed in both the market and the household economic sectors is essential. In addition, with our exponentially growing elderly population, good training and adequate rewards for care work are necessities. Support for investing in this vital work can be obtained by taxing activities that harm and take life or that add no real value to human existence: for example, taxing short-term trading in stock markets worldwide.
Establish caregiver tax credits and subsidies for childcare. According to US Census statistics, women over the age of 65 are twice as likely to be poor as men over 65. Most of these women are, or were, caregivers. The persistent failure to give real value to the “women’s work” of caregiving helps explain why poverty and hunger have proven so persistent.
Caring for other human beings, particularly our children and our elderly, and caring for our natural life-support systems is socially and economically essential. Our economy is our human creation. We can create a better, more caring economic system. And should.
This article is adapted from a speech Eisler gave at Bretton Woods 75, a conference in New Hampshire that aimed to reimagine the contemporary world economic order.