By Julian Siravo
By 2050, 1 in 4 people will be aged 65 or over and there will be nearly double the amount of over 85 year-olds than we have today. These numbers have not been matched by investment in long term care for the elderly or innovative thinking around ageing. As this huge demographic shift is underway, domestic care work is in crisis. An increase in life expectancy, an expansion of women’s waged employment and a weakening of support networks and state services on which older people rely, have caught us unprepared and are leading to unprecedented levels of social exclusion and loneliness amongst seniors as well as unfair and alienating working conditions.
So far, we’ve failed to take up this challenge. For over a decade conservative governments have encouraged citizens to self-organise their survival through neo-communitarian policy frameworks like the Big Society and by outsourcing care, encouraging ever-more precarious exploitative forms of employment. In 2018 the UK government announced a Loneliness Strategy, but this promised funds wholly inadequate to the scale of the caring crisis facing us (e.g. a minuscule £1.8m dedicated to increasing the number of community spaces). As if to underline the government’s gestural and underwhelming action, in 2019 the House of Lords proposed a £7bn programme of free social care – a concept that begins to understand the scale of the problem.
On top of this, a 2013 document suggested that a response to an ageing population would be longer working lives, noting that: ‘Working for longer can often improve health and brings social and intellectual benefits. More people working for longer also helps sustain economic growth and improve the country’s fiscal position. Employing older workers can benefit employers by using the experience and knowledge of people who still have much to contribute.’ We should not expect care and rest in our later years, but merely more work. Notwithstanding the huge health and economic costs that a work-centred society entails, this direction of travel is demonstrably backwards; over the past century we have been reducing the working week and our working lives, and this has been widely recognised as progress.
Rethinking our approach to care
It is crucial to challenge the idea of eldercare as something that merely absorbs value. Ageing is an opportunity to build social power: as the integration of welfare and neoliberal management of care breaks down, the way is opened for new approaches to thinking about how we sustain and reproduce lives. In tackling loneliness and a crisis in care provision, we need to go beyond funding. Interventions in the urban fabric of our towns and cities will be instrumental to making care a field of every-day social and political negotiation.
If we fail to bring the question of care into the public realm – make it explicitly political – we are bound to reinforce and perpetuate the dynamics of exploitation that characterize this work. The re-domestication of the social sphere implied in the rhetoric of Big Society, means the reinforcement of reactionary narratives and policies about family and care.
Rolling out LTCC
With Long Term Care Centres, we propose setting up a capillary network of spaces that bring care relations out into the open, in dialogue with their surroundings. The strategy attempts to address directly the current practices of care (domestic, informal, private) while constructing a commons of care for every neighbourhood. In addition to health services, amenities aimed at tackling loneliness, and the provision of space to encourage the growth of cooperative and community care solutions, the focus of Long Term Care Centres are home care workers.
With services that range from anonymous advice on immigration and working conditions to nap rooms, these centres are designed to address the needs of different kinds of care workers, in the neighbourhoods their clients and loved ones live in. The project embraces a plural understanding of carework, from informally employed migrants performing domestic work to local residents caring for their older relatives. With the provision of low and no-cost services addressing specific needs, the project aims to become an aggregator of an otherwise isolated and exploited workforce, in an increasingly vital sector of the economy.
Julian leads the Autonomy_Urban research stream. In his own work Julian has explored automated construction, post-familial domesticity and socialized care-work. His research for Autonomy spans from aging populations and the future of care, to food and logistics.