Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The care economy is one of humanity's most valuable assets. Here's how we secure its future

The care economy is worth at least six times what the space economy is expected to yield in 2035.

The care economy is worth at least six times what the space economy is expected to yield in 2035. Image: REUTERS/Desire Danga Essigue

Kim Piaget
Insights Lead, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Healthcare Capacity and Infrastructure

  • The global care economy is one of our most valuable assets — but it does not receive the attention it deserves.
  • The care economy is worth at least six times what the space economy is expected to yield in 2035.
  • Securing the future of the care economy is existentially important, and now states are taking notice.

Changing the world is a slow business. It requires consistent everyday gains to compound and mature over time to generate significant returns. The care economy is also a slow investment, but it is one with tremendous transformative potential.

Some of the most meaningful work being carried today, crucial in guaranteeing the future prosperity and wellbeing of humanity, is happening simultaneously at a planetary scale — not in labs, simulations or experimental settings, but rather in kitchens, rural clinics and care facilities.

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Understanding the care economy's value

In today’s dollars, the care economy is worth at least six times what the space economy is expected to yield in 2035, with unpaid care alone being valued at $11 trillion in 2018 and global demand for care workers, care goods and services continuing to grow.

Like space exploration, the care economy needs substantial investment from public and private actors to fulfil the promise of a better future. This is fortunate, given the numerous everyday opportunities that exist to assure well-resourced care systems.

International instruments can help set global commitments for the future of care. For example, member states of the World Health Organizaton (WHO) are negotiating the Pandemic Accord to assure sustained funding for health emergencies, among other objectives.

Securing the future of the care economy

Fundamental to any effective preparedness for and response to a future pandemic must be a commitment to a massive investment to address the world-wide shortage of nurses, which in itself constitutes a global health emergency

Howard Catton, CEO, International Council of Nurses

Here’s why that’s so important according to Howard Catton, CEO of the International Council of Nurses and member of the Global Future Council on the Future of the Care Economy: “The lack of investment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic cost countries countless lives and caused an economic shock that reverberated around the globe, costing nations trillions of dollars. Fundamental to any effective preparedness for and response to a future pandemic must be a commitment to a massive investment to address the world-wide shortage of nurses, which in itself constitutes a global health emergency, as evidenced in the State of the World’s Nursing report.”

The World Economic Forum found that in ten key economies — Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, South Africa, Spain, the UK and the USA — the unmet need for jobs is highest in the healthcare sector, which needs to add approximately 33 million jobs if it’s to address social mobility and economic targets.

Catton said: “Providing good health care for all by eliminating the shortfall in the global nursing workforce will produce massive returns on investment for countries with the foresight to make the right choices sooner rather than later.”

Investing in healthcare is imperative if economies are to meet current and future healthcare needs, but so is upholding a shared commitment to the equity of care systems.

Catton explained: “One of the consequences of the current situation is that a small number of high-income countries are attracting huge numbers of trained nurses from lower income countries as a quick fix for their nursing shortages, effectively outsourcing the costs of their education and training. This practice, which has been described as a new form of colonialism, (...) widens already existing health care inequalities.”

Addressing global health inequity through care

Macroeconomic policy can play a key role in addressing these inequities while expanding the pool of resources that can be invested in across the range of care goods and services a population needs to thrive.

Setting economic policy goals that focus on improving people’s well-being, instead of GDP growth, requires stakeholders to expand and strengthen social and physical care infrastructure. As council member and Rutgers Professor Radhika Balakrishnan explains, when care is a policy priority, it is necessary to rethink fiscal, trade and monetary policies to shape socially and environmentally sustainable systems at a global scale. This includes policy design to ensure that care systems are not inequitably structured, nor sustaining gender, racial, income or other inequalities.

Balakrishnan said: "There is a need to go beyond recognizing the importance of care in the existing economic model and to start building and implementing frameworks for a caring economy (…) The centering of care in macroeconomic policy frameworks must include specific measures to ensure universal access to reproductive health care, promote reproductive autonomy and eliminate gender-based violence in the world of work and at home."

With timely, sustained and collective investment, leaders can ensure through care that we get on the right track to deliver a fairer future.

The World Economic Forum thanks Howard Catton and Radhika Balakrishnan for their contributions to this article.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Equity, Diversity and InclusionHealth and Healthcare SystemsJobs and the Future of Work
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