What would drive thousands of people a year out of jobs they love, or need, with no certainty about whether they will ever be able to come back?
If you have parents of a certain age, you might already have guessed the answer. About 600 people a day are giving up their jobs to look after elderly or sick relatives, the charity Carers UK estimates, a hidden exodus from working life that we don’t discuss nearly enough. Young women are bombarded practically from the cradle with conflicting advice about how to “have it all” as working mothers, yet hear almost nothing about coping as working daughters in an age of unravelling safety nets. (And yes, about 42% of carers are male, which means many thousands of men are also toiling unpaid round the clock; but women are statistically more likely to care for parents and men for spouses, meaning men are more likely to care in retirement and women when they are still young enough to be working).
Here is the grim reality behind all that sentimental stuff from Jeremy Hunt, when he was health secretary, about how families should embrace their elders as Asian families do. People who could have managed in their own homes for a little longer with decent help aren’t coping, when all they get is brief daily visits from care workers so rushed off their feet that they barely have time to shove a clingfilmed meal into the fridge for later. Good childcare is still expensive and hard to find, but an entire infrastructure of nursery places and tax credits has at least grown up over the last 20 years to help. Social care for both adults and children has gone in the other direction, with day centres closing, home help services pared to the bone and care homes struggling to stay afloat.
It’s older people themselves who are bearing the brunt of threadbare social care, obviously, and none more so than the increasing number of people ageing without children. The implicit assumption that families will pick up the pieces when budgets are cut ignores the fact that not everyone has a family, and that some families are infinitely more dysfunctional than others.
But the collapse of social care has serious implications for the next generation, too. Most of us instinctively want to repay the love our parents once gave us, and to be able to spend time with loved ones at the end is a privilege. The blunt truth, however, is that caring can be a lonely, stressful and impoverishing business, especially if you have to give up or cut back on your livelihood to do it. And unlike career breaks for motherhood, caring breaks are open-ended, with no certainty about how long people might be gone – which makes it harder to pick up careers again further down the line.
Wealthier families can at least throw money at the problem, paying for help or building granny annexes in the garden. But those options aren’t open to everyone and so older people are left feeling guilty about asking for help even when they clearly need it, while offspring feel wracked with guilt for not offering. Meanwhile, the sort of meaningful social care reform that might ease this dilemma all round is endlessly kicked into the long grass by politicians scared of the backlash to almost any solution proposed, from tax rises to making people sell their homes to fund it. And Brexit may only make things harder, if it stops EU nationals coming to work in the NHS and social care, as a Department of Health paper last summer pointed out.
Carers UK is sensibly focusing on asking employers to be flexible, allowing people to stay in work for longer while doing the right thing by their families. Working from home, going part-time or being able to take a few days’ leave at short notice can all help.
But this problem can’t be solved by individual families and sympathetic bosses alone and it’s high time the government faced up to its responsibilities, too. There are only so many emergency dashes up the motorway anyone can wangle, when they are also needed somewhere else; only so far families can be stretched before they snap.