IWD Thoughts on Unpaid Work

It’s International Women’s Day.

One of the most important concepts I learned in my Sociology A Level at South Notts College was from Ann Oakley in “the Sociology of Housework” (1974). It is the concept of unpaid work.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently.

In the UK we’ve had news stories around internships, unpaid enforced labour for jobseekers. Underlying the concept of the Big Society is a reliance of volunteers. My own cousin is doing fantastic work with charities and NGOs, but largely unpaid. Her career is a different sort of world entirely from the one I had at her age.

Meanwhile in the sectors I work in: education and technology, we have concepts like cognitive surplus , we have a culture of overtime, of knowledge economy work that crosses the boundaries between personal and professional. We all bring our work home with us in our heads.

While I’m at work supporting this world, my children are looked after by a childminder (one is full time, the other is with her outside of school hours). From my salary, I pay another woman to look after my children. Quite a few women in my position rely on their mothers to play that role, and usually without payment. For very good reasons, that would not be a suitable solution for me. But it does make we wonder about the real economics of childcare.

And thinking ahead … with women of my generation having babies later and later … and having to work to a late retirement … will I ever be able to help with caring for my own grandchildren? I doubt it very much. So I’m guessing that will we see a big change in women’s the pattern of work, semi-retirement and old age. For every well paid “career woman” (whatever that means) there will be a woman (or man) paid to look after her children. It’s a strange economy.

But then I stop and remember that salaried labour is a very recent invention in human history. For most societies that have existed, people have roles, they work, they barter, they live, and the question of salary, income and wages doesn’t come into it so much.

So what am I saying?

Be mindful to the possibility that some of the directions we are going in are propped up by unpaid labour. We can’t play the game of costs/benefits, balance sheets and economic growth without recognising that a lot of the work that is taking place is not counted as jobs. It’s too easy to have only a partial view of “work”. That goes for health and social care, education, technology … the nature of work has changed over history, and we would do well to remember that.

That’s it really. Just a plea to remember that.



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