Helen Hester & Nick Srnicek
April 6 2021
If leading capitalist countries were once built upon industrial might, today these same countries are rapidly transitioning into economies centred around the work of social reproduction. The tasks of reproducing human life, both daily and generationally – the work of childcare, gestational labour, education, cooking, cleaning, sex work, healthcare, eldercare, and so on – are becoming core to the advanced economies.
The fact of this structural transformation has scarcely been noticed, yet its impact on gender and work in the coming decades will be immense. Aging populations, declining fertility, growing emphasis on lifelong education, and the continuation of dual-breadwinner households will all shape the parameters of social reproduction work, as well as informing the sorts of social crises that will arise in the future. At the same time as paid employment in reproductive labour grows, we can also expect to see the work of care being increasingly pushed onto communities and families (particularly poorer families) in an unwaged form, as real terms public support is rolled back. It is likely that women will continue to shoulder much of the responsibility for this work. In every country in the world for which data are available, women spend more time than men on unwaged work, and (in the absence of sustained political struggle aimed at more equitably redistributing this labour) this established trend seems doomed to repeat itself.
The aim of the Feminist Futures Programme (FFP) is to take the structural transformation of care work seriously and to ask what can be done to foster better futures for reproductive labour. In this short introduction to some of the key concerns of the FFP, we will outline the changing situations around waged and unwaged reproductive labour alike, before pointing to what we consider to be fruitful directions for future research on the topic.
Waged care work
While the focus today is often on digital technologies as a leading edge of job creation, the reality is quite different. Care work, in fact, is the leading job growth sector with occupations like home health aide, social worker, and nurse all set to see significant job growth in the coming decade. These jobs already account for significant portions of the labour market – nearing 30% in some countries and rising. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS), for example, is among the largest employers in the world – emblematic of how much labour is required to sustain the health of a country. Added on to these official figures is a swathe of typically overlooked reproductive labour that goes unrecognised by most official statistics bodies: sex work, surrogacy, informal childcare, and so on.
Despite the extensive growth of this sector, the work of social reproduction is also ruthlessly devalued and underpaid – a fact not coincidental with its historical and ongoing gendering. Care work has, of course, long been positioned as feminised, low-skilled, and/or a labour of love. As more and more people “earn a living” from this work – and as increasing numbers of us become dependent on it in order to meet our caring needs – it is likely to become a significant site of worker tensions. Many of the labour struggles of the future will centre around the waged facets of social reproduction.
Unwaged care work
Just as important is the vast amount of unpaid reproductive labour that is performed daily, largely by women, throughout the world. Estimates of the size and value of this labour vary depending on metrics and assumptions, but all are agreed that it would add significant amounts to GDP if counted as equivalent to paid work. The UK’s Office for National Statistics, for example, has estimated that this labour contributes £1.24 trillion in value to GDP and consists of many billions of hours of work annually.
There has been a growing shift to outsourcing various kinds of reproductive labour to the unwaged workers of the family. Hospital stays, for instance, have been getting shorter for some years now as part of a drive to cut costs, typically leaving unwaged family carers to take up the task of supporting recovery. Long-term care and eldercare is also increasingly being offloaded by welfare states, as it is transformed into (often invisible) work being done in the home. On top of all this, there has been a burgeoning of unwaged reproductive work during the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns (most obviously, childcare and home education, but various other kinds of activities too). Many people have seen the “second shift” also become a “simultaneous shift”, as the spatial and temporal divisions between wage work and unwaged work have evaporated.
With the increasing significance of this work, how can we conceive of the space of worker struggles in social reproduction? Whereas the factory floor leant itself to class consciousness and cooperation, and a growing collective awareness of workers’ common interests, today much reproductive labour is fragmented and isolated. While this hasn’t prevented workers from organising, forming unions, and fighting back, the hurdles remain significant and the question of effective tactics and strategy remains an open one. What, for instance, can be learned from feminist histories calling for ‘counterplanning from the kitchen’ in terms of launching the struggle from the social factory? What, if anything, do discourses about technology and the future of work have to add to these debates?
At the most basic level, better pay and working conditions for those carrying out reproductive labour is a necessity – one made all the more clear by the essential nature of this work during the pandemic. New modes of organising and overcoming the fragmented nature of much reproductive work are also an important step forward. But we also need to think about the distribution and organisation of this work. While more and more of social reproduction has been pushed to the market, much of it remains ill-suited for this form of provision. Childcare, for example, is an expensive and largely unprofitable venture; healthcare under market conditions leads to the vast inequalities and costliness of the American system; and long-term care and eldercare are again largely devoid of opportunities to turn a substantial profit. Market provision of social reproduction more often than not leads to exhausted and poorly paid carers, expensive and low-quality services, and major inequalities in terms of who has access to care.
Fortunately, there are superior alternatives – ranging from drawing upon communal histories showing how this work can be carried out by social units beyond the family (while, crucially, avoiding the Big Society trap of replacing publicly funded services with unfunded volunteer initiatives), to thinking through alternative means of public provision, as well as critically and sensitively exploring the possibilities enabled by new technologies and alternative forms of housing beyond the individualised nuclear home. The FFP will aim to examine these sorts of issues by providing a platform for some of the best emerging research on gender and the future of work. Over the coming months, we will explore various strategies for recognising, redistributing, and refusing certain kinds of reproductive labour, with a view to ensuring that emancipatory proposals about the future of work are not allowed to neglect this crucial and burgeoning field of activity, despite the fact that it brings with it a particularly acute set of challenges.
Helen Hester leads our Feminist Futures Programme. She is Professor of Gender, Technology and Cultural Politics at the University of West London. Her research interests include technofeminism, social reproduction, and post-work politics, and she is a member of the international feminist working group Laboria Cuboniks. Her books include Xenofeminism (Polity, 2018), and After Work: The Politics of Free Time (Verso, 2021, with Nick Srnicek)
Nick Srnicek is Lecturer in Digital Economy in the Digital Humanities department at King’s College London. His current research is focused on post-work politics and social reproduction, and how the two separate areas can be fit together. He is the co-author, with Dr. Helen Hester, of a forthcoming book, entitled After Work (Verso, 2021) and has previously written on labour market transformations – Inventing the Future (co-authored with Dr. Alex Williams, Verso, 2015) – and on the digital economy and its dynamics: Platform Capitalism (Polity, 2016).