Why the “Women at Work” Conversation Has Become “Caregivers at Work”

Eurie Kim, Partner; Nicole Johnson, Partner

It feels like every week this year, we've seen some new shocking statistic about the depth of the caregiving crisis in the US. The World Economic Forum revealed that caregiving requires nearly as many hours per week as full-time work (in case there was any question about just how much caregiving interferes with careers), and related, a new study found that 1 in 4 parents report being let go due to workplace interruptions related to childcare breakdowns. Caregiving needs are becoming so pervasive, even Gen Z is impacted — they now account for more than three million family caregivers in the U.S. Underpinning this crisis is a professional caregiver shortage that’s become increasingly acute: nurses across the U.S. are striking, the ballooning, nursing-home-adverse older population far outstrips the shrinking number of in-home aides, and there are 100,000 fewer child-care workers today than there were before the pandemic. At Forerunner, we’ve seen caregiving strains play out day-to-day through the entrepreneurs we support and our own team who balances caring for aging family members alongside taking care of kids. We’ve had child care resources abruptly cancel, leaving us in a lurch and upending our schedules, while also managing small armies of care professionals to make sure our parents are safe. Everywhere we look — regardless of socioeconomic status or other factors — caregivers are cobbling together support day-to-day. 

Are all these new findings a sign of a worsening problem — or a product of increased attention to a problem that’s gone under-recognized for far too long? We think it’s a strong mix of both.

If the 2010s were all about “women at work” as the emerging, thorny socioeconomic issue seeing tailwinds of change — the 2020s seem to be all about caregivers at work. And (no surprise) that’s because it’s near-impossible to talk about one without the other: caregivers are a 75% women demographic, and they account for $470B in unpaid work annually (yes, “B” as in billions). 

We at Forerunner have spent a lot of time thinking about why the caregiving crisis seems to have snuck up on our society with such severity in scope and scale. It went from a painful, under-recognized personal issue that people dealt with privately to a full-blown healthcare and labor force conversation that’s permeating through the private and public sectors, with a range of new companies and policies aiming to fill needs. This surge in attention is overdue (and essential), but it’s also not coincidental that it’s coming to a head now.

A Boom in Working Women Atop Fragile Infrastructure

To understand the current situation with caregivers at work, it’s helpful to contextualize it within the original conversation about women at work. About 10-15 years ago, the needs of working women gained speed largely thanks to a rising class of women leaders, CEOs, and politicians helping bring these issues to the forefront (because sometimes, you can’t know what you can’t see). Gaps were exposed across compensation standards, cap tables, executive teams, and more. Cultural focal points like #MeToo and the complexities of the 2016 elections helped catapult this momentum, and the issue went from a rumbling conversation to a snowballing, formidable force of change. In response, many businesses and organizations made changes to meet the moment and right wrongs — some were thoughtful and good natured (think: more gracious maternity leaves, and NASDAQ starting to require that companies have at least one woman board member before listing), and were some hasty and born out of fear of retribution (think: botched hiring programs that resulted in poor retention). Despite some of the bumpy and incomplete efforts — and the dearth of efforts in decades prior — working women have made tremendous strides, increasing in overall volume and throughout higher positions of power. It’s worth noting that working women were hit hard in the pandemic, but have seemingly now recovered to levels commensurate with pre-COVID highs.

That brings us to where we’re today: we have a burgeoning, diverse demographic of working women, but the underlying infrastructure supporting them has been much slower to change — and these shortcomings are exacerbated and exposed in the context of this demographic growth. So while career opportunities for women are compounding, their tools, resources and supporting frameworks are relatively under-resourced and prone to breakage. You don’t have to look far to see how this plays out: 

  • The US is the only first-world country without any standardized paid maternity leave at a national level, despite employment rates of 77% amongst women.

  • The Family and Medical Leave Act, passed ~30 years ago, entitled people to the right to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for caregiving needs — but 40% of American workers aren’t covered by it and 74% of women don’t think they can afford it

  • There is a profound shortage of care workers of all kinds, who are essential for outsourcing the caregiving responsibilities that have traditionally fallen on women (for children, the elderly, ill, and otherwise) — and thus essential for working women continuing with their careers. This supply and demand problem is so severe, about one in five Americans are stepping up to provide unpaid care to an adult with some significant health or functional need, accounting for an average of 20 hours per week (in essence, an unpaid part-time job).

  • Caregiver demands are now so abundant, it’s the number two reason (after retirement) why someone exits the workforce.

Overall, the scaffolding supporting working women appears to be unreliable and fragile — and this is particularly apparent in caregiving, a widespread problem that requires significant time and money from a majority-women demographic. The pandemic was, unfortunately, a microcosm of this fragility: as the number of people with caregiving needs skyrocketed, the number of working women promptly sunk to sub-1988 levels. With caregiving needs only projected to grow, more stable infrastructure will be essential to getting ahead of what could otherwise be an exodus of women from the workforce. 

The Caregiving Math Problem

Additionally, caregiving issues are surging now purely because the math is not our side. Boomers, the largest generation in history, are just now starting to become the aging population. That means the 65+ population is set to double by 2050, while smaller younger generations take on the caregiving roles. This is resulting in unfavorable caregiving ratios: in 2010, there were 7 potential caregivers for every high-risk person over 80, but in 2030, that’s expected to hit 4-to-1 before moving to 3-to-1 by 2050.

Additionally, the sandwich generation of caregivers — an especially strained subset of caregivers who are taking care of both an adult and a child — is projected to grow. Millennials are continuing to delay starting their own families until later in life, resulting in more than half of Americans in their forties now being sandwiched between aging parents and kids. Unfortunately, about 25% of sandwich-generation caregivers report significant financial strain compared to 12% of non-sandwich caregivers — and 44% experience significant emotional strain, compared to 32% of their caregiver counterparts.

Where there are long-held structural barriers that deeply impact the lives and wellbeing of consumers, we see entrepreneurship as uniquely suited to fill gaps. We are already seeing a class of deeply motivated founders stepping up to meet needs in caregiving through solutions that save time, money, and mental overhead.These can be bucketed across elder care platforms, like DUOS, a caregiving platform supporting the growing preference to age in place, or Papa, offering companionship to older adults; childcare platforms, like Kinside, a modern child care benefit for today’s working parent, to Brella, offering flexible, care and early education in its centers; and lastly, the platforms providing caregivers the tools and resources they need to help themselves and those they care for, like Yohana, a family assistant, to Bold, an at-home, digital fitness platform designed to help older adults stay strong at home. 

caregiving thesis market map

Ultimately, investing in caregiving isn’t just a social issue — it’s an economic one. The U.S. could lose roughly $290B in GDP each year starting in 2030 because of this growing caregiving crisis, both from growing care worker shortages and the resulting outflow of talent from the workforce taking on caregiving roles. This is all inextricably linked to the wellbeing of our country’s working women, but the future of our economy also depends on it. 

  • DATE

    Spring 2023

  • Perspective Type