It might seem counterintuitive to think about care as a Generation Z issue. When politicians bring it up, it’s often seen as a way of courting older voters. We young people have plenty of other concerns on our plates already, from soaring rents to the threat of environmental collapse. But the truth is that, alongside the housing, the climate and all the other crises we face, the systemic neglect of care could define every stage of our lives.
According to the latest census, five million people in the UK provide unpaid care to a partner, friend or relative. The real number is likely even higher, because many newer carers don’t see themselves as carers. Meanwhile, an estimated 2.6 million over-50s in England have unmet care needs, and around 13,600 hospital beds every day are occupied by people who don’t have to be there but have nowhere else to go. With an ageing population, and a rise in long-term sickness fuelled by Covid-19, these figures will only go up.
When Conservatives talk about an ageing society, it’s often to decry women (it’s always women) for not having more children, or older people for not wanting to work themselves into the grave. But the fact that we live longer should be celebrated, and our economy rebuilt to reflect that. At the same time, we must enable people to start families if they wish to: taking aim not at young people’s alleged selfishness or “wokeism”, but the material conditions holding our generation back.
The UK is among the countries with the highest childcare costs in the developed world. Amid labour shortages, the Tories have been coming up with new plans to get economically inactive people into work, reportedly including a letter-writing campaign for stay-at-home parents. But not even a card from the King himself would convince a young mum to return to the office if nursery fees exceed her salary.
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So here’s a proposal that could bring generations together, from boomers to zoomers, and improve prospects for those yet to come. Let’s build an economy with care at its heart: one that is free and of good quality, from cradle to grave, and with decent pay and conditions for staff.
While such a commitment doesn’t come without a cost, its benefits would be significant. The Women’s Budget Group estimates that spending 2.7 per cent of GDP on care would create two million living-wage, low-carbon jobs, and support the economy by boosting employment – particularly for women. Importantly, it would enable both receivers of care, and those who love them, to live more fulfilling lives.
But spending is only part of the solution; we can and should think bigger. Nationalising social care would address the problem of patchy service provided by unaccountable for-profit companies, and allow for meaningful integration with the NHS. A National Care Service doesn’t have to be top-down: by learning from successful cooperatives like Suffolk’s Leading Lives, we could use the framework to explore democratic models of management, with input from workers, users and communities. At the same time, we need reforms to support those with unpaid caring responsibilities: from a higher and more flexible carer’s allowance to a shorter working week, allowing more time for family life.
Margaret Thatcher famously claimed that “there’s no such thing” as society, only individuals and families. But as a generation brought up under austerity, Gen Z knows all too well that for individuals and families to thrive, we need a society after all. For the sake of our futures, let’s build one that cares.
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