Elder care and paid work: Gender differences in the relationship between unpaid elder care work and employment in Bulgaria

by Mieke Meurs and Lisa Giddings

Covid-19 has shown a bright light on the unequal burden of care on women and the impact of this burden on women’s wellbeing. The increase in household work, childcare, homeschooling, and the care of older adults, which under normal circumstances is disproportionately born by women, has been exacerbated in the pandemic as “Covid took a crowbar into gender gaps and pried them open”. This is taking an economic and emotional toll. According to McKinsey Global Institute, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable in Covid-19 than men’s, and while women comprise 39 percent of global employment, but they account for 54 percent of job losses. Research in the United States showed that among mothers of children under 18 years of age, 57 percent are experiencing increased stress due to the coronavirus outbreak, compared 32 percent of fathers.

The issue is not new, however, and addressing it requires planning for the longer term.  The story of Covid has focused on childcare, as children were sent home from daycares and schools forcing parents to juggle work and homeschooling.  But in many countries in Europe, aging populations and eldercare are a significant burden as well. Documenting the care need and its impact on women is the first step in developing policy to avoid “familialism by default”, in which families are expected to simply absorb the burden without state support. In the former socialist countries of East and Central Europe, this work is just beginning. Our article begins to address this gap.

Bulgaria is a country with significant elder care need, a problem exacerbated by several demographic and economic trends related to the transition from socialism in the early 1990s.  Demographically, Bulgaria faces an aging population, long term (and declining) low birth rates and emigration among twenty-somethings linked to the post-socialist economic downturn. Economically, the weak economy and corruption result in low levels of state revenue, and the main state support for eldercare is the payment of low pensions. There is also limited direct state provision of elder services, but the capital city is severely underserved, and even fewer services are available in rural areas. Overall, the value of the elder services provided by the Bulgarian government is ranked the second lowest in all of Europe. To make matters worse, market alternatives are also limited even in urban areas, and what services exist are expensive. While labor force participation rates among women are high, particularly after children reach school age, social values favour family care, and patterns of intergenerational support that developed during socialism have become tradition. In the mid-2000s, at the Gender and Generations data was collected, over half of all elders (over 75) lived in a multigenerational household.

Bulgarian women bear the burden of providing unpaid care of elderly and disabled parents. This effect shows up differently depending on whether elderly or disabled parents are co-resident or live nearby, but either way, the burden falls on women. While having a co-resident parent with care needs has no impact on men’s labor force participation, the impact on women’s probability of employment is negative and significant. There is some evidence that having an elderly parent newly living nearby has a stimulative labour market impact, perhaps due to the need for financial support for the elderly non-co-resident family member, but the net impact is strongly negative. This suggests an important role for government elder care in improving gender equity and labour market functioning in Bulgaria.

Uncovering the impact of caring for the elderly on employment can be difficult because time spent in caring activities can affect employment, while at the same time one’s employment status can affect the decision to provide care. Using the timing of the onset of care need to help identify causality, we find that unlike what has been found in the US, and some European countries, in Bulgaria there is no evidence that those who are already out of the labor market are more likely to take on care. This is perhaps because there are so few alternative sources of care through either the state, the market, or siblings.

Having an elderly co-resident parent has a negative impact on women’s employment. Looking at the impact of a newly co-resident parent (or in-law) who is over 75 or disabled, we find that such a change reduces a women’s likelihood of employment by 23 percent. A change in having elderly or disabled parents (or in-laws) nearby increases a woman’s likelihood of employment by 8 percent, perhaps because these nearby needy relatives must be supported financially (through purchased food, for example) but do not place as many direct demands on time as do co-resident elders. Together, having a co-resident nor nearby parents in need of care reduces women’s likelihood of employment by 15 percent. Neither newly co-resident nor nearby parents in need of care impact the likelihood of employment for men.

Bulgarian women’s burden of providing unpaid care of elderly and disabled parents contributes to low labour force participation rates among women, career disruptions, and lower fiscal and productive contributions to the economy as a whole. As the population continues to age, these losses will become increasingly important. Historical patterns and cultures related to the gender division of labour have a strong impact on who provides care, but national institutions and care regimes also significantly impact care decisions. Increased public support for and provision of care play an important role in reducing the negative impact on women and the broader economy.  European examples of such policy examined by Frericks et al. varied in generosity, but all included providing pay and social security rights to the caring relative and rights to care leave from a current job and job protection, ensuring future income security for carer. In some cases, the state also directly provided extensive care services or support for the development of market options, through training, coordination assistance and regulation, and financial support for care purchase. In the current context of relatively high unemployment and low wages in Bulgaria, in addition to supporting female attachment to the labor market, many of these options offer the additional benefit of fiscal and labour market stimulus.

While women were already shouldering most of the world’s unpaid care work prior to the pandemic, the health crisis and lockdowns associated with mitigation as well as the disproportionate risk to the elderly of Covid-19, caused a dramatic increase in this burden. Many countries, states, and even companies have moved to address deficits in childcare during the pandemic. According to the International Network on Leave Policies & Research, Australia has offered free child care to its citizens for 14 weeks during the pandemic and parents can use two weeks of carer’s leave for unexpected school closures. Greece allows parents to take paid leave from work or reduce their hours up to 25 percent. Little has been done to offer relief for women who are also caring for the vulnerable elderly in their lives.

It is not hard to predict that these effects will have a ripple effect on women in the future in terms of promotion and earnings. Public policy that prioritizes the support of the specific burdens that women face would not only diminish the widening equality gap between men and women, but would also support the populations for whom women care, and provide needed boost to economies worldwide.

This blog post is based on an article published in the Journal of European Social Policy

About the authors

Mieke Meurs is Professor of Economics and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at the College of Arts & Sciences, American University of Washingthon, DC.

Lisa Giddins is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

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