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Care Work, Gender Equality and Welfare State Sustainability

In this insightful collection, academic experts consider the impact of neoliberal policies and ideology on the status of care work in Nordic countries. With new research perspectives and empirical analyses, it assesses challenges for care work including technologies, management and policy-making.

Arguing that there is a care crisis even in the supposedly feminist Nordic ‘nirvana’, this book explores understandings of the care crisis, the serious consequences for gender equality and the hitherto neglected effects on the long-term sustainability of the Nordic welfare states.

This astute take on the Nordic welfare model provides insights into what the Nordic experience can tell us about wider international issues in care.

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The aim of this chapter is to place Nancy Fraser’s care crisis concept in the Nordic welfare society context. Fraser has developed her discussion of the care crisis with a focus mainly on the Anglo-American model, that is, in societies very different from the Nordic welfare model regarding the organisation of reproductive work, gender equality policies and labour market regulation. In her broad framework, ‘crisis of care’ is ‘best interpreted as a more or less acute expression of the social-reproductive contradictions of financialised capitalism’ (Fraser, 2016: 99, emphasis added). In this chapter, we argue that her understanding of the role of reproductive work in capitalist societies today, as well as the idea of a deepening care crisis also makes sense in a discussion of Nordic societies. There is, however, a need to take into account the historically specific institutional configurations, policies and social practices that render the dynamics of care crisis in the Nordic welfare states different and variegated, but nonetheless fundamentally engender crisis tendencies that are becoming more and more visible.

Fraser’s main argument is that reproductive work is rendered invisible, even though it constitutes a necessary ‘background condition of possibility’ for production (Fraser, 2016). This argument is not new. Feminist care theorists argue that care is at the core of any society (for example Tronto, 1993, 2013, 2017; Kittay, 1999). Feminist economists (Dalla Costa and James, 1975; Waring, 1988; Ferber and Nelson, 1993; Henderson, 1996; Folbre, 2001, among others) have argued that all production of economic value is based on unpaid work and resources whose value – and costs – are not reflected in the formal economy, and that the appropriation of unpaid work and unvalued resources is central to the accumulation of capital on a global scale (Mies, 1986).

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Care research does not take place in a vacuum, especially in the context of a global pandemic that has magnified the care crisis dynamics discussed in this book. Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis will actually give impetus to a more enduring, transformative restructuring of care and justice. And yet there is only limited room to reflect on these developments in the format of academic book chapters written mainly in the pre-COVID-19 period. How then can we make sure to position this book in its time, so that you, the reader engaging with our discussions, get a sense of the unsettling, disruptive context in which it has been finalised?

This postscript brings together a range of vignettes by some of the book’s contributors on dimensions of COVID-19-related developments in their respective context. Taking the care crisis concept as reference point, each vignette describes a concrete moment, development or process that offers reflections on the discussions in the book within the COVID-19 context. Carsten Juul Jensen provides a glimpse from the perspective of a practitioner of care. Birgitte Ljunggren highlights the ambiguities of the impact of policy reactions to COVID-19, where unintended consequences have indeed shown what early childhood care could look like if there was sufficient political will. Carsten Juul Jensen’s poetic rendering of an interview with a nurse volunteering for the COVID-19 unit conveys a feeling of how mundane and at the same time existential hospital care is, on so many levels. Finally, in a reflection on what it means to write and edit a book on the care crisis, Laura Horn highlights the disruptive context of academic work in the time of COVID-19.

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