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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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This book began by asking whether it is justified to talk about the existence of a care crisis in the Nordic welfare states that have implemented neoliberal reforms and, if so, what are the characteristics of this crisis and the major areas of concern in terms of gender equality and welfare state sustainability? The book concludes that it is possible to talk about a care crisis in the Nordic welfare states, and that there are issues of concern regarding both gender equality and welfare state sustainability. It is an uneven crisis, which takes different forms in the various fields of care and in the different Nordic states. Although the care crisis might not be fully visible yet, it produces insufficient and inadequate care, sometimes poor working conditions and too little time for the care workers to care for themselves, their families and communities. However, the Nordic welfare states have also made a difference to the depth of the crisis: regulations and institutions have prevented the development of a full crisis. Moreover, care workers, care-givers and care-receivers and their organisations are taking part in social struggles against the consequences of neoliberalism and financialisation. Yet, the outcome has – so far – been less caring and less gender-equal Nordic states.

In the introduction, we argued in favour of rethinking the notion of a care crisis. We defined a care crisis as characterised by inadequate resources for care and the absence of ‘good-enough care’, applying the theorisations of Hochschild (1995) and Fraser (2016) and combining them with the insights of Phillips (1994) considering the industries of care. In this book, the contributors have directed their attention to what happens inside the Nordic welfare state(s).

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Care, and being in need of care at various points of your life, is a condition of our existence. We can’t live without giving and receiving care. You wouldn’t be here reading this text without having been cared for as a baby. Being fed, bathed, nappies changed and having clean clothes put on. Care is embedded within practices in various institutional contexts, including the home, the hospital, the crèche and the nursing home. In these contexts most people are ‘doing good’ (Mol, 2007) in relation to those that are currently sick, disabled/challenged, children or fragile. Those that are doing less well need to receive help, support and coaching in a dialogic, ongoing, although possibly fragmented, process and adjust to the care provided. Throughout life we experience being dependent upon others to maintain our existence – or improve it. Care can be a burden, and care can create pleasant feelings of belonging, doing something together, doing good, and being seen as someone in need of care, or someone providing care. Care can be paid and unpaid, but regardless of this, it constitutes ‘care work’ as one of the founding mothers of Nordic care research, Kari Wærness, has argued (Wærness, 1982).

In this book we discuss the status of care work, and especially paid care work, in the Nordic welfare states in light of the neoliberal turn in welfare politics, and what this means for gender equality and the sustainability of the Nordic welfare state. When care work is commodified i.e. paid either in a market or by the state, it simultaneously becomes a public form of care work.

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