The sexism of Brexit

Thinking small.
Thinking small.
Image: AP Photo/Virginia Mayo
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A report from UK Department of Health finds that Britain could be short 28,000 care workers within five years of Brexit—just as the country experiences an unprecedented rise in the numbers and proportion of aging people in need of care.

Extrapolating the consequences of this caregiver shortage, the report stated: “If we fail to meet social care needs adequately we are likely to see a decrease in labour market participation levels, especially among women, as greater numbers undertake informal care.”

The report did not say, “If we fail to meet social care needs adequately, families will be faced with difficult choices about balancing paid work with unpaid care for loved ones.” It did not say, “we are likely to see a decrease in labour market participation levels as both men and women leave the workforce in equal numbers to care for their aging parents.”

Instead, the department made an assumption: There will be many people in need of care, and too few professionals to care for them, so female relatives will pick up the slack, even when it means they must quit jobs and imperil their own economic security to do so. It would be easy to accuse the report’s writers of sexism, if only their words didn’t echo the default judgment still made in many homes in the UK and elsewhere.

Nearly 60% of family caregivers in the UK are female. In the US, the percentage is roughly the same. Caring for an aging family member is a role that many people take on with pride and love, but it’s impossible to pretend that it doesn’t also come with a very material cost to the person shouldering the responsibility. People who leave the workforce early to care for an aging relative lose roughly $304,000 in wages and benefits, according to a 2012 study from AARP.

Men are just as likely to have parents as women are, but the responsibility of caring for those parents in their older age is not being shouldered equally. Even decisions that seem about simple numbers can have roots in gender inequality. A couple determining how to care for an aging parent may opt for the lesser-paid partner to leave work to do it. If that person earns less precisely because she already took years off her career to raise children, it’s hardly a fair decision.

Assuming that women will take the lead on caregiving duties is sexist. But until individual families are willing to consider care a collective responsibility, rather than simply a female one, those assumptions feel uncomfortably like foregone conclusions.