Automating care: the devaluation of care work for the elderly in the name of gender equality

Date Posted: Thursday 25th February 2021

Blog piece by Dr Ella Fegitz

Over the past 20 years, the issue of an ageing society has come to the fore in many Western countries as a major concern. The investment in new technologies to tackle the needs of an ageing population has been one of the responses to this issue. This has important implications for women, as they continue to provide the majority of care for the elderly, often unpaid.

Up until the Covid-19 pandemic, longevity was increasing world-wide, leading several national and international organisations to describe population ageing as one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. Indeed, while life expectancy has increased, health has not improved at the same rate, meaning that many of us will live for longer, but in poor health. The UN understands population ageing as one of the most significant transformations of society, with important implications for the provision of primary care and long-term care, the structure of the pension system, and the delivery of social protections.

Welfare technologies and eldercare

The UK Government has offered a number of solutions to the issue via the industrial strategy ‘Building a Britain Fit For The Future’ (2017): the Government plans to ‘harness the power of innovation to help meet the needs of an ageing society’. Among other things, the government suggests funding innovations in the field of digital technology to automate some of the tasks and services currently provided by the NHS and the semi-privatised care sector. In 2018 the government offered over £300 million investment for the development of care technologies, such as AI powered portable devices that monitor vitals and Smart Homes that detect any suspicious movements, such as a fall or an intruder.

According to the government, this will not only cut in the need for public spending and increase productivity, but it will also free women from the burden of caring for their elderly relatives, as expressed in the work produced by the ‘Women’s Business Council’ – an industry-led advisory group to increase women’s participation in paid work. The Women’s Business Council frames the unpaid care work that women often provide for their elderly relatives as an obstacle to their full participation in the economy, and suggests that improvements in technologies will liberate them from this burden. Automation of care work, then, is understood as improving the lives of care workers, of the elderly population, and of women.

Automation and the reproduction of gender inequality

As social reproduction theory has shown, care work is essential for the reproduction of labour, and thus, capital; at the same time, keeping its cost as low as possible has resulted in this work being assigned to women and other disadvantaged minorities, who perform it for free or for a low wage. While the acknowledgement of women’s unpaid work by the Women’s Business Council is undoubtedly an improvement, the way automation is framed in the context of care for the elderly in the UK reproduces the undervaluation of this type of work. Indeed, by depicting care work for the elderly in terms of a burden on society and on women, the government continues to privilege productive labour over reproductive labour.

Furthermore, automation of care for the elderly has the contradictory effect of, on the one hand, bringing attention to the invisibility of women’s unpaid work, on the other hand, making the emotional work involved in caring for others invisible once again. This may have important repercussions on those who perform this type of work, both waged and unwaged.

At a societal level, the employment of digital technologies to automate care work re-entrenches cultural assumptions about the emotional side of care as unskilled and natural to women. Indeed, if technology takes over the more practical side of care for the elderly, what is left is the emotional work, which will likely fall predominantly onto women, since women are expected to be more naturally inclined to love and care.

In turn, these assumptions may affect the labour conditions of those who are currently employed in the care sector, which is already characterised by high levels of exploitation, precarity, and flexibility. As shown in previous research on automation in warehouses, digital technologies have not substituted human labour, but changed working patterns, contributing to making them even more exploitative and precarious.

Research in Northern Europe has highlighted how implementation of welfare technologies has created new forms of ‘invisible work’, including not only the time spent to manage often imperfect technologies, but also the physical and emotional labour that continues to be performed by care workers alongside the technologies. Without strict regulation, the care workforce may become stretched even thinner due to the assumption that it is machines that do the heavy lifting, ignoring the many ways in which digital technologies do not minimise the work performed, but modify it in multiple ways. Working-class and BAME women will be affected the most, as they are overrepresented in the provision of care for the elderly in the UK.

A feminist lens to tackle the complexity of automation in eldercare

To be sure, innovation in welfare technologies do bring some benefits. For example, many seniors who need caring, value autonomy and prefer living in their own homes. Digital technologies such as home sensors and AI powered vitals monitoring devices can indeed fulfil many older people’s desires for autonomy and home care. At the same time, some of these technologies may increase isolation, as the human interaction provided alongside the service is no longer available.

But we may also want to challenge cultural and political messages that celebrate autonomy and independence at the expense of engaging with the way vulnerability and interdependence characterise existence, not only in old age, but throughout one’s life.  This would contribute to creating an alternative vision of society to the neoliberal one and its focus on individualism and self-sufficiency.

Ultimately, the implementation of digital technologies in care work has complex effects, and needs complex strategies, impossible to address in such short space. Crucially, a feminist lens is needed to appreciate the way automation in eldercare may reproduce existing patterns of disadvantage in terms of gender, class and race, even when attempting to challenge gender inequality.

Dr Fegitz is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department for the Study of Culture at the University of Southern Denmark.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Women’s Budget Group.