Not retiring: equal treatment for elder and childcare

We need to take a more holistic approach to the care needs of the UK workforce.

Woman caring for older relative hugging her, both smiling


A report out this week from Joseph Rowntree Foundation calculates the ‘caring penalty’, or the amount lost in earnings by those who take up caring for a loved one because they are forced to reduce their hours, give up opportunities for progression or leave work altogether. It estimates an average pay penalty of £487 per month, or nearly £6,000 per year. It recommends a series of steps to be taken to help unpaid carers remain in the workplace, based on the Statutory Maternity Pay model of 39 paid weeks off.

This year has seen the passing of the Carer’s Leave Act 2023 under which carers can take up to five days of unpaid leave for caring responsibilities. For those caring for someone with complex needs five days – and unpaid – is a drop in the ocean, but it is a start in terms of putting carers’ needs on the map. And it is because of the passing of the Act indeed that the JRF can push the envelope that bit further. If you have relatives with long-term health needs you know how important having the time to arrange and attend health or social care meetings, investigate care homes or organise in-home help can be, let alone visiting people in hospital after sudden falls or trying to locate a relative with dementia who has gone missing.

While childcare is expensive, it is often predictable. You know that there are five weeks of summer holidays coming up and you might need cover. With elder care the needs can be completely unpredictable. With childcare too, you know that it is usually a temporary thing and your child will grow and become independent. With caring, it can be about a long-term decline and increasing dependency. That takes a whole different emotional toll. It’s a lot to manage and many carers have to reduce their hours or drop out altogether and it can be difficult to get back to work afterwards.

I have spoken to several employers who offer really good provisions for carers, with flexible working being at the centre. They recognise the importance of keeping carers in work and that, as the workforce ages, more and more of the workforce will be unpaid carers. At a time of shortages, they need to retain them. I have spoken to unpaid carers who say that work was the thing that kept them sane because it distracted them from the sometimes physically and emotionally gruelling work of caring.

It makes sense to think of caring in the round. While there are a lot of problems with the childcare system in this country, it gets a lot more attention than caring generally. We need to change that and make sure that care of all kinds is at the heart of what we do.

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