Eldercare can be a double whammy for working women

Caring for older relatives can compound pay and pensions gap caused by childcare

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

 

Recently my colleagues at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) presented research results on the gender pension gap in Ireland. The research, sponsored by the Pensions Council, which advises government on pension policy, showed a gap of 35 per cent between the pensions of men and women. It also showed that this gap is driven by differences in access to occupational pensions.

Subsequently, other ESRI colleagues presented research on older workers in Ireland. The Health and Safety Authority were the sponsoring agency and one particular finding struck me. Among older workers, women are five times more likely to leave employment for care-related reasons.

One consequence of improved health outcomes and improved longevity is that more people in their 50s and 60s have parents who are still alive

While these two pieces of work were conducted separately and for separate agencies, there is an important link worth highlighting.

For many years, we have understood that women suffered disadvantages in the labour market relative to men and that many of these disadvantages stem from the fact that responsibilities for child-related care fall disproportionately on women. Women are much more likely to interrupt their careers to care for children. This contributes to the gender wage gap with women often suffering a wage penalty due to breaks in work experience. The impacts on pension accruals are also clear, resulting in the gender pension gap.

One of the policy prescriptions offered to address this imbalance is improved access to childcare, with affordability a key dimension. Internationally, more radical approaches have been proposed such as compulsory paternity leave. The logic is that unless men are forced to share caring responsibilities, the underlying cause of gender differences in the labour market will persist.

Policies around childcare are to be welcomed. However, the ESRI finding on the greater likelihood of women over the age of 50 leaving the labour market for care-related reasons points to an additional policy challenge.

One consequence of improved health outcomes and improved longevity is that more people in their 50s and 60s have parents who are still alive. We also know that the cost of formal childcare in Ireland is high and that many grandparents provide childcare informally. Finally, many people provide care for their husbands or wives as increased frailty sets in.

To the extent that these various “later life” caring roles fall disproportionately on women, as seems to be the case based on research findings, including research published jointly by the ESRI and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, women are suffering a later-life disadvantage in the labour market. For many women, this could be the second occurrence of care-related interruptions.

This later-life occurrence is not discussed as widely as the earlier-life career interruptions for women.

Just as childcare is a policy prescription to address career interruptions for mothers, the question arises of whether the care of the elderly needs to be seen as a way of facilitating older women to remain in the labour force.

If women are being forced to leave jobs so that they can care for parents or older spouses, then inequality in care responsibilities is impacting on the labour market participation of women, their wages and their pensions.

Providing appropriate care which reflects the needs and wishes of the individual and respects his or her dignity is paramount in our health and social-care policies for older people. However, this possible impact on women’s participation in paid work adds another strand in support of extension of care for older people. Drawing on recent ESRI research again, we also know that increased home care and nursing home/long-term care can have a substantial impact in freeing up capacity in our hospitals where discharges are delayed due to an absence of suitable care arrangements. The level of unmet need for home care for adults in Ireland is among the highest across 10 EU countries.

Based on these points, it seems that efforts to expand publicly-supported care for older people in Ireland could be a win-win-win policy: wins for the older people themselves; for women (and men) who would otherwise have to leave the labour force; and for people trying to access hospital care.

Other policies could include more flexible workplace leave schemes for those caring for older people, or welfare payments that facilitate combining part-time work and elder care.

Professor Alan Barrett is the chief executive officer of the ESRI.

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