The Value of Care and Domestic Work

28 Dec 2015

Ignacio Socias, Director of International Relations at the International Federation for Family Development (IFFD) shared with STI two policy papers on the value of unpaid work in the home, the first of which follows. The second will follow next week.

As part of their work at the United Nations, the International Federation for Family Development (IFFD) has been promoting the recognition of the social role of the family. Recently, the General Assembly has recognized in one if its Resolutions that every State should create “a conducive environment to strengthen and support all families, recognizing that equality between women and men and respect for all the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all family members are essential to family well-being and to society at large, noting the importance of reconciliation of work and family life, and recognizing the principle of shared parental responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child.”

In accordance with it, the new Post-2015 Development Agenda includes the value of unpaid care and domestic work as one of its targets. One of the most recent publications by IFFD tries to help lawmakers to understand why this is important and what policy recommendations they should keep in mind to achieve this target in the next 15 years.

The value of care and domestic work

According to Professor Diane Elson, unpaid care work refers to “all unpaid services provided within a household for its members, including care of persons, housework and voluntary community work.” These activities are considered work, because theoretically one could pay a third person to perform them. [1] In 2008 at an Expert group meeting on Unpaid work, Economic Development and Human Well-being held by the United Nations Development Programme, she presented a model of three interconnected dimensions to incorporate the issue of unpaid care work into the development agenda: recognition, reduction and redistribution. [2]

A recent OECD study adds that unpaid means that “the individual performing this activity is not remunerated”; care means that “the activity provides what is necessary for the health, well-being, maintenance, and protection of someone or something”; and work implies that “the activity involves mental or physical effort and is costly in terms of time resources.” [3]

Unpaid work matters a great deal and we can find it everywhere around us. It is central to our lives and essential for our well-being, though it is largely invisible in terms of statistics (Figure 1).


It underpins all societies but it is perceived to be less valuable as it is frequently not considered as work. Its contribution to economy and development remains hidden. If domestic tasks and direct care were assigned a monetary value, they would constitute between 10% and 39% of GDP, but it is generally unrecognized and undervalued by policymakers and legislators. [4] In fact, well-being is often proxied by aggregate income or production per head and changes in well-being by the corresponding rate of growth. However, neither measure is not fully adequate if there is a considerable amount of unpaid work or if growth occurs because of substitution of paid for unpaid hours of work. [5] Moreover, “ignoring it may lead to incorrect inferences about levels and changes in well-being. Since women traditionally do much of the unpaid work, so neglecting to include it underestimates women’s contribution to the economy.” [6]

In securing basic needs, the provisioning of necessities and conveniences of life occur through a combination of paid and unpaid work in four key institutions: market, state, households, and nongovernment (non-profit) institutions. In general, the contribution of each of these institutions in securing material needs varies by the level of economic development of the country people live in and in accordance with the prevailing public provisioning policy regime. Be it paid or unpaid, people spend about one-third of their time working (Figure 2).


In turn, the degree to which a person is able to procure ‘goods’ and ‘services’ from the market depends on whether markets are relatively well developed, as well as the ability of household members to participate in paid work and earn sufficient income to make the necessary purchases. Income poverty due to joblessness or substandard living wages limits access to marketized inputs.

Moreover, independent of how poor or wealthy a household is, some time must be devoted to “overhead household production”, i.e., time needed to transform purchases into consumable final goods. Wealthy households are in a position to often substitute hired services for their own unpaid overhead household production contributions. Cooks, gardeners, or laundry services do just that. Finally, households that are income poor and are not able to buy such services may also face difficulties in paying the customary user fees to have running water or electricity in their home, make use of public or private transportation, or to avail themselves to durable household assets that reduce household production time, such as an electric stove, refrigerator, or washing appliances. In yet other cases, severely poor households may live in settlements where basic services such as sanitation, electrification, and water delivery are completely missing. [7]

Routine housework

Families devote substantial unpaid time to productive activities such as cooking, cleaning and caring. This unpaid work increases overall consumption of goods and services and represents implicit income. Becker revolutionized the modeling of household behavior by unifying Marshallian demand functions for goods with labor supply and related time-use decisions within the household. [8]

While unpaid work – and especially the gender division of unpaid work – is to some extent related to a country’s development level, country cross-sectional data suggest that demographic factors and public policies tend to exercise a much larger impact. The regular collection of time-use data can thus be of tremendous value for government agencies to monitor and design public policies, and give a more balanced view of well-being across different societies. In particular, learning about people’s time allocation ensures a better understanding of a society for policymakers concerned with efficiency and equity of social policies. The understanding consideration of unpaid work for relative inequality and for inequality over time is not directly addressed in this paper, but such work may be part of a future agenda for the OECD as new time-use surveys become available for many countries in the next few years.

As countries industrialize, a large part of the household production of food, clothing and caring for family members is transferred to the market and purchased by families. While this is a simple shift from the non-market to the market sector, it translates into a rise in income as measured by income and production aggregates and gives a false impression of an improvement in living standards. [9]

Ignoring home production may also bias measures of income inequality and poverty rates. For instance, families where one parent has the time to do routine housework and take care of the children will have a higher disposable income than families with the same income, but where both partners work and external cleaning and childcare services are purchased. [10]

“In mainstream economics as well as in the common sense, households and families are viewed as mere consumers of so called consumption goods and services, and their productive functions are neglected. On the other hand, firms are seen as producers and their consumption of labor, raw material and parts of the natural environment is neglected. Production is seen as valuable and consumption is seen as non-valuable or less valuable. The question we must ask is whether there is evidence and theory to paint another economic picture? If there is, can we overcome the myopic view of households and families?” [11]

In all countries the main component of unpaid work is routine housework. As we have seen above, routine housework includes tasks as cooking, cleaning, gardening, pet care and home maintenance. Across 29 countries under consideration, people spend on average 2 hours and 8 minutes per day on routine housework. The total duration varies, however, greatly across countries, as does the importance of routine housework within total unpaid work. For instance, Koreans spend only 1.4 hours per day on routine housework, but it accounts for 60% of their total time spent on unpaid work. Australians, on the other hand, devote on average more than 2 hours to routine housework but it represents only half of their total unpaid working time. Compared with the other components of unpaid work, there is less variation across countries in routine housework (coefficient of variation of 0.17). [12]


Care is a new concept that describes an old reality. It is a broad concept. It has many dimensions and requires a range of varied tasks. It provides what is necessary for health, well-being, maintenance and protection of someone or something. [13] While standard measures of household living standards treat all families as identical, the extended income measure, which incorporates the value of household production, will be more equally distributed as unpaid work varies much less than paid work across households. [14]

In addition to unpaid work within the household, people also carry out vital unremunerated work for relatives who live outside the household and for the wider community. Voluntary work, such as helping out neighbors, caring for older people or people with disabilities, supporting charities, assisting new immigrants, training sports teams, and administering schools, also contribute to societal well-being but are not included in the traditional economic measures. [15]

The decision to engage in caring may not necessarily be by choice, but may also reflect systematic disadvantage among carers compared to non-carers (working and caring) in respect of labor market characteristics, including education attainment and previous work experience. [16]

Caring, and in particular childcare, is one of the most difficult tasks on which to collect information. Unlike most other activities, care is often passive and combined with other activities, e.g. cooking while a child is playing in another room or watching television together with children. Time-use surveys try to deal with multitasking by recording both ‘primary’ activities (“what were you doing?”) and ‘secondary’ activities (“were you doing anything else at the same time?”). One limitation of such respondent-recorded data collection is that primary activities tend to be meticulously tracked while secondary ones are usually overlooked (and in some countries not even collected). Some surveys encourage respondents to report their secondary activities by listing clear examples on the diary form. However, as not all countries prime respondents, the recording of secondary activities may vary significantly across countries. [17]

As with childcare, the time spent on caring for adults is difficult to measure accurately. Care for adults receives much less attention in time-use surveys than care for children does. Additionally, many surveys do not even publish caring for the elderly as a separate category. For instance, the Harmonised European Time Use Survey (HETUS) database, grouping 15 European time-use surveys, includes help to an adult household member under the category ‘other housework’, together with household management (such as paperwork and shopping by phone).

In contradiction to childcare, adult care is not separated by the age of the person that is being cared for, so it is often impossible to make a distinction between care for an ill or disabled spouse or other relative. Only the Korean time-use survey has separate categories for care for parents, spouse and other family members. Yet, the Korean survey (and also the Japanese survey) does not single out household members, so parents not living in the households are included in the category ‘care for parents’, while this is considered as ‘care for non-household members’ in most other time-use surveys. Differences in definition and presentation thus make the comparison of adult care across countries extremely difficult.

Yet, more and better information on the time spent on adult care would contribute to the design and understanding of long-term care policies. Evidence indicates that informal care accounts for the largest share in long-term care for elderly and disabled people. In addition, informal care yields several economic, health and social benefits for the care recipient and reduces public long-term care spending. However, while many OECD countries support family and other informal carers either financially, or through respite care and other non-financial benefits, it remains difficult to reconcile work and caring jobs, and informal carers are at a higher risk of poverty. [18]



[1] Diane Elson, ‘Progress of the World’s Women: UNIFEM Biennial Report, United Nations Development Fund for Women, 2000.
[3] Diane Elson, ‘The three R's of unpaid work: recognition, reduction and redistribution’, Presented at the Expert Group Meeting on Unpaid Work, Economic Development and Human Well-Being, United Nations Development Programme, 2008:
-  Recognition means that the unpaid care work done mainly by women is acknowledged as work and production. This means that it is made visible to those who profit from it and to policymakers at the local and national level. This includes gathering qualitative and quantitative data that can be used by policymakers and civil society organizations in designing projects. Recognition may also take the form of compensation of unpaid care workers, including these workers in social security programs, and including unpaid care work in national statistics.
-  Reduction of unpaid care work involves reducing the burden for the individual (usually a woman) and society as a whole. This frees time for women and girls to pursue other activities such as formal jobs or political participation. Unpaid care work can be reduced through the introduction of infrastructure and technology such as wells that provide easier access to clean drinking water reducing the amount of time spent collecting water. The burden of unpaid care work can also be reduced though increased public services like childcare.
-  Redistribution of unpaid care work to more fairly distribute the amount of work done by individuals includes redistribution among men, women, households, markets, the state and civil society organizations. While the overall amount of care work remains the same, the share of responsibilities, time and resources is more equitably distributed.
[4] Gaëlle Ferrant et al., ‘Unpaid care work: The missing link in the analysis of gender gaps in labor outcomes’, OECD Development Centre, 2014.
[5] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,
[6] Maurice Weinrobe, ‘Household production and national production: an improvement of the record’, Review of Income and Wealth, April 2005.
[7] Stiglitz et al., ‘The measurement of economic performance and social progress revisited’, OFC Working Paper, 2009.
[8] Rania Antonopoulos, ‘The unpaid care work - paid work connection’, Working Paper - Policy Integration and Statistics Department, International Labor Office, 2009.
[9] Gary Becker, ‘A theory of the allocation of time’, The Economic Journal, 1965.
[10] Veerle Miranda, ‘Cooking, caring and volunteering: Unpaid work around the world’, OECD Social - Employment and Migration Working Papers, 2011.
[11] Abraham and Mackie, ‘Beyond the Market: Designing Nonmarket Accounts for the United States’, National Research Council, 2005.
[12] Michael-Burkhard Piorkowsky, ‘Competences of housework – What modern household economics tells us’, Home Renaissance Foundation Working Papers, 2011.
[13] Veerle Miranda, ‘Cooking, caring and volunteering...’
[14] M. Silveria Agulló Tomás et al., ‘Caring for others - A challenge for the 21st century, Social Studies Collection, Fundación LaCaixa, 2010.
[15] Harley Frazis and Jay Stewart, ‘How to think about time-use data: what inferences can we make about long and short-run time use from time diaries?’, Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit, 2010.
[16] Veerle Miranda, ‘Cooking, caring and volunteering...’
[17] Axel Heitmueller and Kirsty Inglis, ‘Carefree? Participation and pay differentials for informal carers in Britain’, Discussion Paper Series - Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit, 2004.
[18] Veerle Miranda, ‘Cooking, caring and volunteering...’
[19] Veerle Miranda, ‘Cooking, caring and volunteering...’


Prepared by Eloìˆse Leboutte and Ignacio Socias 


IFFD is developing activities to promote relations within the United Nations and the European Union regarding family-related issues. IFFD is a member and has been conferred General Consultative Status on the Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC) of the United Nations, it chairs the NGOs Committee of the United Nations for the Family in Vienna and has standing representation in the main headquarters of the UNO: New York, Geneva and Vienna.


Download IFFD's Papers nº 45 "Unpaid but essential for our lives" (1 September 2015)
Visit International Federation for Family Development's website
Read Socias’ Interview with Mercatornet following the UN General Assembly meeting that set sustainable development goals