Category: Featured

Info-Tech Is Not the New Utopia

Is another (economic) world possible? When economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek helped invent the doctrine of neoliberalism in the 1930s and 1940s, they meant to say, decisively, “No!” Only the unregulated price system could assure the rational allocation of resources, economic growth, and stability over the long haul. That is why Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “There is no alternative” to free market principles, and hence what you see is what you’ve got: The future can only be the same as our present, history has ended, and capitalism is permanent. We have lived with that dispiriting sense of closed horizons for some time now, but suddenly, over the past five years, a refreshing stream of new books has appeared with titles such as Does Capitalism Have a Future?, How Will Capitalism End?, and Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Similarly, the Nation recently devoted a special issue to the theme of getting “out from under capitalism.”[i]

Among all these, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, has gained a good deal of attention as an engaging, forceful argument that another world is not only possible but indeed in the offing.[ii]  Hidden in today’s information technology and “networked” knowledge, Mason argues, lies the promise of a grand social transition toward a collaborative mode of production surpassing the price system of bourgeois markets, a transition made absolutely imperative in our time by the coming, combined threats of climate disaster, aging populations, and the gargantuan growth-killing overhang of debt the world over. Let me say that I’m all for a democratic and egalitarian future beyond capitalism (though for reasons suggested below, I’d still prefer to call it “socialist”), and I welcome and embrace his argument for the necessity of such a future, especially in the face of the present and coming dangers he cites. Mason’s book, however, is less a sure guide to the future than a ghost of futures past. His presentation of “postcapitalism” as a dramatically new analysis of present conditions and future prospects actually evokes visions that are at least fifty or sixty years, maybe a century, old—visions that proved too facile and optimistic a long time ago. We need something more hard-headed—as Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci’s old slogan put it, a mind more pessimistic, combined with a forward-looking will—when we think about how we might get from where we are to where we want to be.

Hidden in today’s information technology . . ., Mason argues, lies the promise of a grand social transition toward a collaborative mode of production . . .

First, let me outline Mason’s perspective; then I will compare it with futures past. Mason mines the Marxian, socialist, and labor-movement traditions for insights into the dynamics of capitalism while tapping contemporary reportage on business, finance, and technology to diagnose the yet-unsurpassed crisis of  2007-2008  and  to  forecast  trends  eating away at the old mechanisms of market society. He does this all in the service of a view Mason considers post-Marxist and up-to-date. He unearths the long-wave theory of Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratieff to outline a history of industrial capitalism since the late eighteenth century in four major phases, culminating in an abortive fifth cycle commenced by the “neoliberal” masters of the 1990s. At previous junctures between one long wave of roughly fifty years’ duration and another (i.e., from the end of a long downturn to a new long boom), Mason explains,  a  combination  of  social  struggles, new technologies, and exogenous shocks led in each case to a reinvention of the capitalist mode: Those shift points led, in the late nineteenth century, toward the monopoly form and in the mid-twentieth century, toward the American-led “Fordist” system. Now, however, any comparable shift has stalled.

Despite the false dawn of the boom in globalized, capitalism during the late 1990s, he writes, the neoliberals’ unbridled free-trade, low-wage, and financialized order has proven not only crisis-ridden but also unable to build a viable growth engine on the basis of our time’s new technology (“info-tech”). He argues this is the case precisely because the networked, digital world cannot be assimilated to the cost-accounting methods and accumulation process of capitalism. Borrowing not a little from the “wired” technophilia of author and futurist Stewart Brand, Mason repeats Brand’s line, “information wants to be free”: that is, in principle, digitized, networked knowledge is so shareable and enduring that its “marginal cost” tends toward zero.[iii] Thus, the value of goods and services built by digital means steadily declines, except as they are propped up by the losing battle of new monopolists (Apple, etc.) to rigorously enforce intellectual property rights.

Given this trend—and here Mason is an orthodox Marxist—the declining rate of profit becomes virtually irreversible. The consequent lack of productive investment opportunities shunts growth into the financial sector, which despite its apparent profit engine mainly promises repeated bubbles and bloated debt. The presumptive motor of what would have been a new (fifth) capitalist long wave—”info-capitalism”—has  not,  and  indeed  cannot,  take  off, precisely because the technological resources, shareable and enduring as they are, tend to reduce value: That is, info-rich products become a sink for capital rather than a means of collecting new profits. (In years past, prior theorists made a similar point when they speculated about technology that is not only labor-saving but also capital-saving, or what happens when capitalism enters a “disaccumulationist” phase.) Thus, economic stagnation and more devastating financial crises await us, even as climate change, aging societies, and new massive flows of migration from the impoverished world pose daunting, unavoidable demands for public investment and social provision. Not info-capitalism but info-tech postcapitalism is the way of the future.

. . . [N]ew massive flows of migration from the impoverished world pose daunting, unavoidable demands for public investment and social provision.

Mason argues that at this very moment, the working class and the old labor movement as agents of change have been entirely fragmented or atomized by the employers’ offensive beginning in the 1970s. Workers proved unable to resist the wage-lowering, job-cutting program of “neo- liberal” financialized capitalism. Consequently, our times have lacked the labor resistance that at previous long-wave turning points compelled capitalists to shift gears, innovate technically and organizationally, and find ways of sustaining mass purchasing power. Here, Mason turns post- Marxist, doubting that the industrial working class ever represented a revolutionary, anticapitalist force. He stakes out a position as a post- “socialist” as well, since prior transformative models, notably the Stalinist command economy, proved calamitous.

In place of those agents now comes the productive force of info-tech, bearing within it not only potentially skyrocketing productivity and cost reductions that can make available an abundance of “free stuff,” as Mason often says, but also behavioral models of shared knowledge, collaborative creativity, and casual attitudes that “blur” the boundaries of work and leisure. The “networked” generation of the young who are accustomed to mobile connectivity, he writes, expects lots of “free stuff” (why should cost-free file-sharing of pop music be prohibited?), and they act productively for the sake of the work without pay (namely, the power of Wikipedia’s contributors, or the computer geeks who make modular improvements to “open source” software). New models of “peer-to-peer” exchanges and services outside the marketplace, cooperative workshops, and the collective provisioning that emerged in popular insurgent movements like the defense of Istanbul’s Gezi park: These forecast the future. Government and business will need to make way, as we embark on the postcapitalist “project,” for a long, gradual shift to a new mode that will increasingly displace the marketplace, private productive property, and compulsive profit-making.

This way forward, Mason insists, is not utopian: To begin with, it is imperative (in the face of climate catastrophe and the coming, radical devaluing of fossil-fuel industries if that is to be avoided) and practicable as economists work out means of a universal basic income—a key step toward recognizing the growing disjuncture between available work and income. This postcapitalist future, in Mason’s view, is not “socialist,” it seems, since it dispenses with old ideas of centralized state planning: consumer markets and entrepreneurship will persist (even as free, shareable goods and services gradually expand their sway) while government will need to undertake the key measures of providing basic income and nationalizing the finance system as well as the energy companies.

This postcapitalist future, in Mason’s view, is not “socialist” . . .

Any number of excellent points appear in this scenario: its sharp sense of the contemporary crisis, its critique of the price system and conventional economic (and neoliberal) dogma, the profoundly historical analysis of capitalist development, and, crucially, its attempt to bring the postcapitalist “transition problem” into serious and imaginative consideration. Yet much of the argument is also all too familiar, surprisingly vague, and weakly defended.

A “postcapitalist vision” of change, understood as something distinct from the struggle for socialism, actually flourished in the mid-twentieth century, dating back as far (in the United States) as journalist Walter Lippmann’s 1914 claim that “a silent revolution is in progress” as corporate combination “is sucking the life out of private property”—and that only determined intelligence was needed to acknowledge the actual “collectivism” of the time and combine it with democratic government. Later, invoking again a “silent revolution” in the con- text of post-World War II reconstruction, politician and author Anthony Crosland coined the term postcapitalist society for the “statist” order initiated by Britain’s Labor Party that, he said, steadily moved the productive order away from the absolutes of private property and profit toward social services; others at the time cited the postwar European “mixed-economy welfare state” as a “post-bourgeois society.”[iv]

This intellectual trend culminated in the original theory of a “post-industrial society,” especially in the United States, as a way of describing tendencies believed to lead away from market absolutes. In this view, very much as in Mason’s diagnosis, the transition from the hegemony of an “economizing” logic toward a “sociologizing” logic (those are sociologist Daniel Bell’s terms) stemmed from the growing, noncommodity form of knowledge as a social resource. Bell, the best- known exponent of “post-industrial” theory, was explicit: The emerging new society was “one in which the intellectual is predominant.” This was decidedly not a “new class” notion of an elite, technocratic intelligentsia. Rather, he argued that contemporary productivity stemmed from advances in “basic science” and its technological applications, rendering the research university as central an institution as the business corporation was to industrial society and injecting into the heart of development the inevitably public good of knowledge. Bell’s meaning was clear: The advancement of scientific knowledge demanded a kind of indicative planning in major social investments, and this crucial new resource was not a marketable commodity. It was not only science as such but also new “intellectual technologies,” by which he meant to highlight the computer-based modeling and planning tools of the sort now used in climate science, that shifted the ground away from the sole calculus of the marketplace.

A writer for the . . . League for Industrial Democracy . . . predicted a standard fifteen-hour work week by the end of the twentieth century.

And Bell was far from the only figure to work in this vein. The historically coincident debate over “automation” (the term coined in the early 1950s to refer to computer-controlled continuous-flow production processes capable of displacing great amounts of living labor) arose in the early 1960s to make many of the same arguments that Mason and other “end-of- work” theorists offer today: The prospect of mass redundancy meant either a social disaster of mounting, permanent unemployment (and coercive means of controlling a superfluous underclass) or the radical reduction of the work week and a break between work and wage accomplished by publicly provided basic income. A writer for the sober-minded League for Industrial Democracy (LID) predicted a standard fifteen-hour work week by the end of the twentieth century.[v]

There too was a bit of fond optimism. That does not mean, however, that there is no genuine rational kernel within such speculation, and Mason rightly finds an origin to it in the pas- sage in Marx’s (1858) Grundrisse often cited as the “Fragment on Machines”: Here Marx wrote, the human laborer in the course of what we would later call automation “steps to the side of the production process” as “watchman and regulator,” and what matters is not the worker’s measured and exploited time on the job but rather the appropriation of his [the worker’s] general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social   body—it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation- stone of production and of wealth. It is then, Marx wrote, that “the theft of alien labour time . . . appears a miserable foundation [of social wealth] in the face of this new one.”[vi]

Mason rightly expands on this: Marx recognized “general social knowledge” as a force of production, the role of “the general intellect” as the new key of human social capacity to meet the needs of social reproduction.[vii] And Mason’s argument that contemporary capitalism cannot maximize the contributions that knowledge-based productive forces can make to human welfare is a plausible translation of Marx’s point about the obsolescence of the wage and property relation under late capitalism. But it is not at all accurate to read Marx’s argument as offering “a knowledge- based route out of capitalism”[viii] or to suggest, as Mason does, that Marx’s “general intellect” is now present in the mobile internet. Marx’s point, rather, was that production would become so profoundly social in practice, manifested in the generally educated individual, that private appropriation and disposition of wealth was both injurious and rooted in an outmoded, baseless claim to property rights. What social force could break with that illusion and that practice was, for Marx, and for us too, another question. There’s the rub.

Contrary to the LID prediction of a fifteen-hour work week, no automatic mechanism of social reason was at work in the late twentieth century to meet productivity gains with scaling back labor and building new means of social provision. Despite the “post-industrial” confidence that knowledge resources could not be commodified, business, legislatures, and courts have managed to go rather far in that direction, even if Mason is correct that the intellectual property regime is in the long run a losing battle against the free flow of tech knowledge. In line with his view that “information wants to be free”—that “info-tech” is by nature the incubus of a new society—he tends to count on the modes of “spontaneous” collectivity and collaboration evident in the worldwide protests of 2010-2013 (from the Arab uprisings to the communal assemblies of Spain and Greece and to Occupy Wall Street) as the source of social energy: “The 99 percent are coming to the rescue,” he states simply in the book’s next to last line. “Postcapitalism will set you free,” is the last.[ix]

Would that it were so. But the key elements of the old socialist and labor movements that Mason leaves behind as putatively obsolete are precisely the things we need to think much harder about in imagining “transition”—and that is, what new forces of solidarity (agents who imagine collectivity as an alternative to illusory, marketized individualism) and organization (a base for persistent agitation) can be built in our time to put his kind of “postcapitalist project” into effect, in opposition to the terribly powerful forces we know are arrayed against that project. For it isn’t at all clear that the 99 percent or networked millennials “spontaneously” generate those forces; we need, in addition to forecasts like Mason’s, a hard-headed new politics of social movements and new strategies of mobilization for change.


[i] Immanuel Wallerstein, Randall Collins, Michael Mann, Georgi Derluguian, and Craig Calhoun, Does Capitalism Have a Future? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System (London: Verso, 2016); Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2015); Sarah Leonard, “Zombie Ideology,” Nation 304: 16 (May 22/29, 2017), p. 3.
[ii] Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).
[iii] Mason, Postcapitalism, 115.
[iv] Howard Brick, Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 4-6, 50-53. See also Anthony Crosland, The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956) and George Lichtheim, The New Europe: Today, and Tomorrow (New York: Praeger, 1963).
[v] Brick, Transcending Capitalism, 189-200, 208.
[vi] Karl  Marx, Grundrisse:Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Vintage, 1973), 704-705.
[vii] Mason, Postcapitalism, 136.
[viii] Ibid., 137.
[ix] Ibid., 292.

Dr. Martin Luther King during Sanitation Strike Copyright Richard L. Copley

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Recognize, Reduce, Redistribute Unpaid Care Work: How to Close the Gender Gap

In September 2016, in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. election, in which Hillary Clinton was expected to become the first woman U.S. president, the media announced that progress on a signature campaign of women’s rights advocates—closing the gender wage gap–had sputtered, if not actually stalled, in the U.S. as well as in many other countries. The annual earnings ratio between women and men in the U.S. was 79.6 percent in 2015, only marginally higher than it was 2007, when it hit 77.8 percent. At this rate, one study concluded, it will take 45 years, until 2059, for men and women to reach parity. Globally it was even worse. The U.N. 2015 Millennium Development Goal Gender Chart estimates that globally women earn 24 percent less than men and perform two and a half times more unpaid care and domestic work than men.

Since at least the early 1970s, women’s rights organizations have campaigned to improve the terms and conditions of women’s paid work, of which the wage gap is the most visible symbol. By the middle of the 1990s, this effort was embraced by trade unions in many countries and by 2005, working together or separately, they had secured the passage of laws forbidding discrimination against women in the workplace in most countries. The proportion of countries with equal pay legislation rose from around 33 percent in 1975 to 86 percent in 2005. The vast majority of firms no longer use different pay scales for women and men, and globally the gender wage gap narrowed by about half from 1991 to 2014, largely due to gains in women’s education. But progress has slowed steadily over this period, and in high income countries it has largely stalled. In Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, after narrowing somewhat in the period 2000-2008, the average gap between the wages of men working full time and women working full time has remained at around 16 percent since 2009, meaning that women’s wages have remained on average around 86 percent of men’s.

One of the key reasons for stalled progress on the wage gap is that women continue to have greater responsibility than men for unpaid care and domestic work in families and communities, looking after people, providing for their daily needs, caring for children, frail elderly people, people who are ill, or living with disabilities. In all regions of the world, mothers with dependent children on average earn less than women without dependent children and less than fathers with similar household and employment characteristics. The gender pay gap is much larger among parents than between women and men who have no children. In the U.S. childless women (including married and unmarried) earn 93 cents on a childless man’s dollar, but among full-time workers, married mothers with at least one child under age 18 earn 76 cents on a married father’s dollar.

Unpaid work responsibilities also result in a gender gap in participation in paid work: Many women have to withdraw from paid work for long periods to care for family members. As a result the gender gap in lifetime earnings is even bigger than the pay gap between employed women and men, as many women have no earnings at all for substantial periods of time. Globally women’s labor force participation has stagnated, although there are important regional variations, with rises in Latin America but declines in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Socialist feminists have always argued that to achieve equality in paid work, women also need to achieve equality in unpaid work. The strategies that can help to achieve this can be summarized as: recognize, reduce, and redistribute women’s unpaid work. These strategies have been strongest in high-income countries with extensive welfare states and have begun to be adopted in a growing number of developing countries that have introduced some of the social protection policies advocated by the International Labour Organization (ILO). But political and economic changes emerging in 2016 put in question how far these strategies can be sustained, let alone extended to countries like the U.S., where they have been weak.

Recognizing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work

Recognizing unpaid care and domestic work means understanding how this work underpins all economies and valuing it accordingly. Right-wing commentators see these activities as a private matter, reducible to individual private choices, rather than shaped by social and economic structures, and having implications for wider society, not just the people providing and receiving care. If no one had children, and took care of families and friends, economies would come to a halt for lack of a labor force.

It is possible to calculate the economic value of unpaid care and domestic work, by finding out how much time is spent on this work, using a time-use survey, and then putting a price on the output produced or a wage on the time spent. Between 1966 and 2015 at least 85 countries in all regions of the world have conducted time-use surveys to find out how people spend their time over the twenty –four hours of a day or the seven days of a week. In the U.S .a time-use survey is conducted annually with a representative sample of people over the age of 15, under the auspices of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau. In 2014 it showed that the average time per day spent in paid work was 4.28 hours for men, and 2.93 hours for women, while the average time spent in unpaid work was 2.33 hours for men and 3.72 hours for women.

It is possible to put a monetary value on unpaid work by asking what it would cost to hire someone to do the work instead. Using this method, estimates were made of the monetary value of unpaid work for 27 OECD countries in 2008, and this was compared with the value of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For the U.S., it was found that the monetary value of unpaid work was 18 percent of U.S. GDP, while for Denmark it was 31percent of Danish GDP and for Sweden 25 percent of Swedish GDP. Differences reflect differences between countries in the amount of unpaid work done, and in the wages used to value this. If wages for paid domestic and care workers are particularly low, as they are in the U.S., then the monetary value of unpaid work will be low. The monetary value is, of course, not the same as the social value of the work, but calculating it highlights what the monetary costs would be if the work were not done for free.

The UK Office of National Statistics released data in November 2016 showing on average UK men do 16 hours unpaid work a week, while women do 26 hours weekly (60 percent more than men). People who have lower incomes do more unpaid work than those with higher incomes. Valuing the work at replacement cost (i.e., what you would have to pay someone to do the same work), men’s weekly unpaid work amounted to 166.63 pounds, while women’s amounted to 259.63 pounds.

Some feminists have argued that women should actually be paid a wage for the domestic and care work they do for their families and friends. The International Wages for Housework Campaign was launched in Italy in 1972 and spread to the UK. Committees calling for Wages for Housework were founded in several cities in U.S, including New York. Today one of the originators of the International Wages for Housework Campaign, London-based Selma James, coordinates Global Women’s Strike, an international network for recognition and payment for all household and care work. However, the demand for Wages for Housework has not become central to women’s struggles for equality, largely because it is perceived as likely to perpetuate the current division of labor, in which housework is seen as women’s work and which is a persistent obstacle to equality in paid work. Also, the proposal would be impossible to implement, as there would be no way to verify hours of work performed, and so in effect would amount to a kind of welfare benefit for housewives rather than a wage. In addition, it does not focus on the questions of how to reduce and redistribute unpaid care and domestic work, and so lacks transformative potential.

Instead, more women’s organizations have struggled for recognition of unpaid work in official national statistics (as in the examples above); and in publicly funded welfare state and social protection systems, such as through tax-funded paid maternity leave, and arrangements that ensure women do not face additional penalties in public pensions because of time spent out of the labor market caring for children.

However, even when statistics on the extent and monetary value of unpaid care and domestic work are produced, they are not used in the design of economic policies. For instance, despite the availability of time use data in the majority of European countries, the design of austerity policies these countries have adopted since 2010 have paid no attention to their impact on unpaid work. Research in a number of countries suggests that cuts to public expenditures have increased women’s unpaid work, especially for low income women, as these women produce caregiving services formerly provided by the public sector, particularly for the elderly and disabled.

Women’s unpaid work has been recognized and supported through cash payments linked to raising children in many countries with a welfare state or social protection system. For instance, in most high-income countries, women employees are entitled to paid maternity leave funded from tax revenue—the U.S. is an exception. However, leave benefits vary greatly across countries. The ILO Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183),ratified by 32 countries as of August 2016, calls for at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, which most developed economies generally exceed. The average duration of paid parental leave in developed economies is 26 weeks.

Some feminists have expressed concern that long-term paid maternity leave, such as the three years available to mothers in Finland, encourages women to leave paid employment for too long, making it difficult for them to return to jobs comparable in terms of pay and conditions to the ones they have left. A more transformative option is paid parental leave, equally shared between both parents, which is discussed here as one of the strategies to redistribute unpaid work.

Women who take time out of paid employment to care for children and other family members also lose out in pension entitlements. In many countries that have a state- organized public pension based on payroll taxes paid by employers and employees, women have successfully campaigned for the government to reduce their loss by paying some contributions on their behalf when they are out of the labor market taking care of family members. Such payments, known as pension credits, are widely used in developed countries and have recently been introduced in some developing countries, primarily in Latin America, such as in Uruguay and Bolivia. They can be provided in relation to care of children, frail elderly people, and people who are ill or disabled, but in practice they are mainly awarded for care of children. Again there is an issue of whether pension credits are paid only for mothers (as is the case in Latin America) or to whomever is the main caregiver, independent of their sex (as is more the case in Europe). Pension credits for the main care-giver does more to promote the redistribution of unpaid care.

Of course, if there is a universal, non-contributory pension, funded from general tax revenue and available to all, pension credits may not be necessary. Such universal social pensions are available in a growing number of countries, including Bolivia, Botswana, Mauritius, Namibia, Thailand, and rural Brazil. While these have obvious advantages over work-related contributory pension schemes, which are found in OECD countries, the benefit levels are almost always considerably lower than those in contributory pension schemes.

Reducing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work

Women’s organizations and trade unions in many countries have advocated for reduction of unpaid care and domestic work through public investment in physical infrastructure, such as the provision of clean water and sanitation, clean energy and public transport; and in social infrastructure, such as care services and health services. Provision of such services is part of the social protection system advocated by the ILO.

In many developing countries, access to clean water and sanitation and clean energy cannot be taken for granted, especially in rural areas; and women and girls spend a lot of time collecting water and fuel. For instance, estimates for 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa indicate that women spend a combined total of 16 million hours per day collecting water. This unpaid work could be eliminated by investment in water and sanitation infrastructure, provided access is affordable. In South Africa each household is entitled to 6000 liters of free, safe water per month. Similarly, women and girls in rural areas spend a lot of time collecting wood and other fuels and grinding and pounding food grains by hand. Rural electrification in South Africa reduced the time women spent on such tasks, boosting their participation in paid work by 9 percent.

In high-income countries, clean water and electricity is widely available, but women spend many hours of unpaid time caring for their children and frail elderly relatives. This can be reduced by transferring production of care to paid workers. In OECD countries on average , only 33 percent of 0-2 year olds are enrolled in early childhood education and care services. This increases to more than 70 percent of 3-5 year olds , but in some countries , such as UK, this is because compulsory enrolment in school begins at age five. In the U.S. early childhood education and care services are not publically provided until age five in most places . Services for children under three, whether publically or privately provided, are only free of charge to the poorest children in any country, and costs vary widely, with fees in the U.S. among the highest in the OECD. Moreover, services are frequently not designed with the needs of working parents in mind, and may operate for only half the day. In the U.S., contributions to the child care costs of some low-income families are made through cash transfers of some kind, such as the low-income tax credit, and there is no comprehensive public provision of such services. By contrast in Denmark, child care provision is the responsibility of local government, and all children, from 26 weeks to 6 years, are entitled to a full-time place. Fees are related to the earnings of parents.

In countries with aging populations, a growing amount of unpaid care work is devoted by women to looking after frail elderly relatives. Public investment in non-medical services for frail elderly people is low, and in some countries, such as the UK, has gone to finance out-sourced services whose staff are badly paid, poorly trained and lack employment rights. In the U.S., there is some limited funding for non-medical care for frail elderly people through Medicaid, providing they first have exhausted all of their own savings. By contrast, in Denmark services are financed through taxation and provided by local councils to all legal residents, and for permanent long-term care needs, are free of charge.
The publically provided care for children and old people that is available in Denmark, as well as benefiting those who need care, also frees more of the time of working-age women to undertake full-time paid work and reduces gaps in their labor force participation. The gender wage gap in Denmark in 2012 was around seven percent, and had been falling since 2009, whereas in U.S. it was almost double this and stalled.

Awareness of the economic benefits of public investment in child care and elder care services is growing. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has called for such investment to provide not only needed services but also millions of good quality new jobs, citing analysis by feminist economists at the UK Women’s Budget Group of the impact of investing two percent of GDP in public provision of child care and elder care services in seven OECD countries. In the U.S., according to this analysis, such investment would create nearly 13 million new jobs, much more than investing two percent of GDP in the construction sector, which would create around 7.5 million jobs. Some 67 percent of the new jobs created by investment in the care sector would go to women, compared to 35 percent of new jobs created by investment in the construction sector. Investment in the care sector would reduce the gender employment gap, while investment in the construction sector would increase the gender employment gap. It is vital to have investment in social infrastructure, such as care services, and not just in physical infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, if women are to benefit equally with men from such investment.

Redistributing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work

Neither feminists nor trade unionists are campaigning to eliminate unpaid care and domestic work altogether. Women—and in some countries at least, increasingly men—want both time free from caregiving responsibilities, and also time to care for loved ones. Gender equality requires that we redistribute the unpaid domestic and care work that remains after comprehensive investment in household-related infrastructure and public services, so that men and boys share this equally with women and girls. This can be encouraged by provision of tax-funded paid parental leave for fathers as well as mothers. In 1994, statutory paternity leave provisions existed in 40 of the 141 countries for which the ILO had data. By 2015, leave entitlements for fathers were provided in at least 94 countries of 170 with ILO data. But paid paternity leave has an average length of seven days against an average length of 106 days for mothers. Fathers’ use of parental leave seems to be highest when leave is not just paid but well paid—at least half of previous earnings, as in the four OECD countries with the most gender-equal distributions of parental leave—Iceland, Norway, Portugal, and Sweden . Also effective are requirements that fathers cannot transfer their entitlement to mothers. In Iceland and Sweden, which offer a non-transferable “use-it-or-lose-it” fathers’ quota of leave days, men’s uptake is much higher (90 percent) than in Denmark (24 percent) and Slovenia (6 percent), which do not.

Men are beginning to take some responsibility for trying to change social norms about men’s participation in unpaid care and domestic work. MenCare is a global fatherhood campaign in more than 40 countries in five continents. Largely funded by U.S. and European foundations and U.N. agencies, its mission is “to promote men’s involvement as equitable, nonviolent fathers and caregivers in order to achieve family well-being, gender equality, and better health for mothers, fathers, and children.” Activities vary by country, ranging from small social media initiatives to radio shows, to comprehensive programs of education and training, and campaigns for paid leave for fathers. For instance, in Brazil, Promundo, a MenCare partner, works alongside the government’s ‘bolsa familia’ cash transfer program (which is targeted to low-income mothers) to train staff administering the program to work with fathers as well as mothers. The aim is to encourage fathers, as well as mothers, to take responsibility for children’s education and health. In 2016 MenCare produced a report on fatherhood in the U.S., which in addition to calling for paid parental leave, calls for workplace policies that value what parents do as caregivers as much as they value their professional achievements. Such policies should include, in addition to parental leave: flexible work hours, sick leave, a living wage, and creation of workplace cultures that respect the caregiving responsibilities of all genders.

Changes in the way that paid work is organized are essential if unpaid domestic and care work are to be equally distributed between women and men. It is particularly important that such arrangements should not only focus on women: for instance, creating a ‘mommy track’ of part-time work just for women. It is often overlooked that the hourly gender wage gap tends to be greatest between women working part-time and men working full-time. For instance, as pointed out by women’s rights campaigners in Scotland, in 2014, the gap in Scotland between the hourly earnings of all men and women was 17.5 percent; in full-time work the gap was almost half this, at 9 percent; but the gap between the hourly earnings of men working full-time and women working part-time was 34.5 percent. A study with low-income mothers in heterosexual couples in England found strong support for a shorter full-time working week for both women and men, so that mothers and fathers could share equally in paid and unpaid work.

The gender wage gap will never be closed by measures that aim to make women’s working lives more like men’s. Now we need more radical measures, those that will transform men’s working lives to make them more like those of women, such as equalizing ‘normal’ hours of paid work at about 30 hours a week for both men and women, raising wages where necessary to ensure this brings in a living income.

Closing the Gap

The gender wage gap will persist, and women’s rights will not be fulfilled, unless the gender gap in unpaid care and domestic work is recognized and closed. Public investment is vital to reduce the amount of unpaid work that needs to be done, but we also need measures to redistribute the remaining work, so that it is equally shared by men and women. As well as raising the rate of women’s participation in paid work, we need to raise the rate of men’s participation in unpaid care and domestic work. This requires action from governments, businesses, trade unions, and women’s organizations to mobilize resources and change cultures. To date, the most effective action has been in developed countries with extensive welfare states and in developing countries that are creating social protection systems. But these achievements are jeopardized by austerity policies and the rise of populist politics that reinforce gender stereotypes and call only for public investment in construction projects not in public services. It will be important for labor organizations and women’s organizations to work together to address inequalities not only in paid work but also in unpaid work.



  1. Institute for Women’s Policy Research, The Gender Wage Gap: 2015, IWPR #446, Washington, D.C., September 2016.
  2. United Nations, MDG Gender Chart 2015, New York, 2015, p. 3;
  3. UN Women, Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016 (New York: UN Women, 2015) 32-33.
  4. Ibid.
  5. UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, Leave No One Behind: A Call to Action For Gender Equality and Women’s Economic Empowerment (New York: UN Secretariat, 2016), 33-35.
  7. UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, 2016:34.
  8. Michelle Budig, The Fatherhood Bonus and the Motherhood Penalty: Parenthood and the Gender Gap in Pay,2014.
  9. UN Women 2015, 75-76.
  10. For instance, Jean Gardiner, Gender, Care and Economics (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997) shows how feminist in the UK-based Conference of Socialist Economists argued in the 1970s that unpaid domestic labour underpinned both the capitalist economy and the gender inequality women experienced in the public sphere and yet had been largely ignored by economists of the left and the right.
  11. I first suggested the three Rs framework for analyzing unpaid work in seminar organized by the United Nations Development Programme in New York in 2009. This framework was subsequently used by UNDP (see for instance Anna Falth and Mark Blackden, ‘Unpaid Care Work’, Gender Equality and Poverty Reduction Policy Brief No.1(New York: UNDP 2009). It has since then been used, albeit with some variations, by a wide range of international organizations – see for instance UN Women 2015 and UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment (2016).
  12. ILO (International Labour Organization) World Social Protection Report 2014-15: Building Economic Recovery, Inclusive Development and Social Justice (Geneva 2014). Social protection encompasses provision of basic income security through minimum wages and cash transfers, and provision of basic social services such as education, care and health services.
  13. As eloquently explained by Nancy Folbre, Who Pays for the Kids: Gender and Structures of Constraint (London: Routledge, 1994) and Antonella Picchio, Social Reproduction ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  14. United Nations Statistics Division Time Use data portal. (
  15. Ibid. The time is averaged over the population over 15 years old, including some who do no paid work and some who do no unpaid work.
  16. Ahmad, N., and S. H. Koh. “Incorporating Estimates of Household Production of Non-Market Services into International Comparisons of Material Well-Being.” OECD Statistics Directorate Working Paper No. 42, 2011.
  17. For a discussion of the conceptual issues, see Nancy Folbre, Valuing Non-Market Work (New York:UNDP Human Development Report Office, 2015).
  18. Report in The Guardian,11 November 2016.
  19. See
  20. There are also other problems, such as who pays the wages; how it is decided how big a wage a particular woman should get, given that there are no set hours of work; and whether married women with no children and well-off husbands should be paid for the housework they do.
  21. Hannah Bargawi, Giovanni Cozzi and Susan Himmelweit (eds.), Economics and Austerity in Europe: Gendered Impacts and Sustainable Alternatives (London, Routledge, 2016).
  22. Sharon Lerner, The Real War on Families: Why the US Need Paid Leave Now, In These Times, August 18, 2015
  23. UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment (2016) 68.
  24. UN Women (2015) 155. An ILO costing study of basic social protection provision in seven low-income countries in Africa and five in Asia estimated that the annual cost of universal basic old age and disability pensions would cost between 0.6 and 1.5% of annual GDP; K Hagemejer and C. Behrendt, “ Can Low-Income Countries Afford Basic Social Security?” Geneva, ILO, 2008;;jsessionid=v1LfY11PCGvGW4N9dqsKKrcxyWszDNnBNTtcqr2TQqzLfvhBD9gB!79209976?ressource.ressourceId=5951
  25. Ibid. 181.
  26. Ibid. 182.
  27. Ferrant, G., L. M. Pesando and K. Nowacka, .Unpaid Care Work: The Missing Link In The Analysis Of Gender Gaps In Labour Outcomes.(Paris: OECD, 2014) .
  28. Some US cities, such as New York City, have recently introduced publically funded education for 4 year olds.
  29. Although wages are generally low, these services are very labor intensive, in both for profit and non-profit facilities. Women’s Budget Group, Investing in the Care Economy: A gender analysis of employment stimulus in seven OECD countries (ITUC,2016,42).
  30. Ibid. 37,42.
  31. Ibid. 41. There is also some limited funding through Medicare, but limited to three weeks, based on the assumption, which must be certified through a doctor, that the person is likely to improve during that time.
  32. Women’s Budget Group (2016)37.
  34. Women’s Budget Group (2016).
  35. Women’s Budget Group (2016, Tables 13,14 and 15). While it can be argued that investment in the care sector would simply create additional low-wage jobs, it is likely that wages would increase with sufficient investment.
  36. OECD. Backgrounder on Father’s Leave and Its Use. Paris: OECD ,2016).
    family/Backgrounder-fathers-use-of-leave.pdf. These gender differences in how much parental leave is taken reflect the fact that the loss of earnings for men is much greater than the loss of earnings for women, who generally are paid less.
  37. MenCare, The MenCare Parental Leave Platform. (Washington, DC, 2016. MenCare is coordinated by Promundo and Sonke Gender Justice in collaboration with the MenEngage Alliance, Save the Children, and Rutgers University and is funded by the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Sida (Swiss Development Agency), Oak Foundation, Summit Foundation, United Nations Population Fund, and UN Women.
  40. MenCare, State of America’s Fathers,
  41. Close the Gap Working Paper No. 14, 2015.
  42. Tracey Warren, Gillian Pascall, and Elizabeth Fox, ‘Gender Equality in Time: Low Paid Mothers’ Paid and Unpaid Work in the UK. Feminist Economics 16(3)193-220, 2010.