Gendering the "Graying" of Society: A Discourse Analysis of the Care Gap

By Outshoorn, Joyce | Public Administration Review, March-April 2002 | Go to article overview

Gendering the "Graying" of Society: A Discourse Analysis of the Care Gap


Outshoorn, Joyce, Public Administration Review


The "second demographic transition" in Western Europe has led to a "graying" and a "de-greening" of the population: an increasing number of old people as baby boomers approach old age, and a decreasing number of young people because of the falling birth rate. In due course, this will lead to a general population decline. The issue is on the political agenda at the national and supranational levels of the European Union states in varying frames. It may be defined as a problem of financing pensions, the increasing costs of health care, the growing demand for care provision, or the consequences for the labor market. There are also cultural definitions circulating that link old age to lesser creativity and innovation, or to fears about the loss or decline of European influence in the world. In recent years, immigration has been linked to demographic decline to remedy the negative effects of the decrease in population.

The Netherlands is no exception to these developments. That country's birth rate has declined sharply since the mid-1960s--when it was still around 3.2 per woman--to 1.6 per woman in the 1990s, a figure below the replacement level of 2.1. Life expectancy has increased from 60 years (men) and 62 years (women) in 1900 to 75 and 81 years, respectively, in 2000 (van Ewijk et al. 2000, 14). Although the Netherlands is relatively better off than many other European Union countries in that it has a lower elderly-dependency ratio, (1) there is considerable public debate about aging, focusing primarily on the costs of the collective provision of health care and old-age pension systems. Old age has been a regular issue on the political agenda since the construction of the Dutch welfare state after World War II. In 1956, the state guaranteed a basic pension to all citizens after the age of 65. There is a national health care insurance covering all persons under a certain wage level, and state-funded homes for the elderly. It always has led to debate about the costs; by the mid 1990s, "graying" and the burden this would present to future generations was the dominant public discourse.

This article will concentrate on the extent to which the policy debate takes the gender dimensions of the demographic shift into account. To what extent is the traditional gender order--in which women are first and foremost carers and men are the breadwinners--still assumed, and to what extent is it, with its attendant norms and values about gender, challenged? What notions and assumptions about gender circulate and feed into in the policy debate? In particular, I shall concentrate on one aspect of the shift: the provision of care for the increasing number of elderly people. In the early 1990s, feminists already were pointing to a threatening "care gap" or "deficit." Policy makers seemed to assume that housewives (numerous in a country where married women's labor market participation traditionally has been discouraged) will continue to provide informal care for their elderly relatives and neighbors and take on part-time work in the care sector. However, the generation of available housewives were already in their fifties, meaning that relatively old daughters were having to take care of increasing numbers of even older mothers. This will lead to more demand for care, but for many women, taking on this care will be too demanding. The shortage of carers will not be easily compensated by younger generations of women, as they have taken to the labor market in unprecedented numbers since the 1970s. (2) Even though the majority of them work part time, they will have less time to take on informal care work. Moreover, many women joining the labor market do not opt for care work because of its poor pay, demanding work, and intractable working hours. Their vastly improved level of education has opened other opportunities in the labor market with better career options, friendlier work settings, and higher pay. The time when women chose care work out of traditional obligation, a sense of calling, or vocation is moving fast behind us. …

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