America's Unpaid Billion-Hours-a-Week Workforce

America's Unpaid Billion-Hours-a-Week Workforce

Why you should care

If you’ve got a parent, this might one day be you.

Give any idiot a keyboard and he could peck out a dismal picture of family life in America: Kids park their parents in warehouses for old folks. Divorce rates give your marriage a coin toss’s odds of success. That said, American caregivers are a booming demographic. And nobody gets paid for it. New research, published in the Population and Development Review, has found that:

1/3

of Americans are informal caregivers, putting in

1.2 billion

hours per week.

These numbers, the first of their kind, says lead author Emilio Zagheni, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington, are even more staggering when broken down in other ways. The time people spend caring for older adults is like having 30 million people snatched right out of the workforce. The effect on the economy is intense. Zagheni estimates that in 2012, unpaid care accounted for about 5 percent of America’s Gross Domestic Product, approximately $691 billion.

So who are these people clocking billions of unpaid hours? Well, despite the attention in the press and policy, the so-called “sandwich generation” — those who take care of young kids as well as their older parents — are actually a very small fraction of caregivers — about 3 percent. Spouses make up a much bigger chunk of the care cake, about 20 percent. The rest are sons and daughters without little rascals running around at home. As it turns out, America is in a “golden age” of caregiving, says Zagheni, referring to the fact that there’s a smaller-than-ever gap between caregivers and those needing care.

Still, providing for a sick loved one without getting paid is no easy task. There have been countless studies that have highlighted how caregiving is stressful and bad for your health, some even lamenting that dementia is caused by caregiving. But the reality may not be so bad for the millions of caregivers in Zagheni’s study. In fact, a hypothesis that caregivers are actually healthier has emerged recently — one study found that noncaregivers have a significantly higher mortality rate than caregivers. Peter Vitaliano, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, says the big takeaway from his research is that “there are zillions of caregivers, and a minority that really have serious problems.”

But as Americans get older in general, the stress may increase. Another 1.3 million caregivers could be needed by 2050, estimates Zagheni. That means policy is going to have to keep pace with America’s older folks, providing flexibility in the workforce, for one. It’s a good time to be old in America. “But that’s not going to last,” he says.

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