Caring and Working in Mid-Life: A Trade-Off?

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Athina Vlachantoni, Ning Wang, Zhixin Feng and Jane Falkingham. Click here to access the article.

Providing unpaid care to a family member or friend, or informal care provision, is increasingly common, with about 1 in 10 persons in the UK being a carer. This number is set to rise as a result of population ageing which affects the demand for care, and changes in family structures which affect the supply of care within the family. For individuals in mid-life who are providing informal care to an elderly parent or parent-in-law, such provision has been shown to have negative effects on their economic activity patterns, for example resulting in them reducing their working hours, or giving up work altogether.

Our research set out to understand the impact of caring on individuals’ working patterns using mixed methods and data from the National Child Development Study. This study collects data from a group of individuals who were born in the same week in March 1958, and has been following them since they were aged 7. In our research, we used data from interviews with 48 carers when they were aged 50, along with survey data from 2,333 carers who were in paid work when they were aged 50 (in 2008), in order to understand the impact of caring obligations and provision on their economic activity by the time they were 55 (in 2013-14). 

In our research, we explored five theoretical perspectives on informal carers’ decisions about paid work, such as a gender approach emphasising gender norms and traditions in societies; a cultural approach focusing on filial obligations; a care burden approach explaining why carers who provide more care are more likely to reduce their working hours; a socio-economic and demographic approach which highlights individuals’ characteristics affecting their work decisions; and finally an institutionalist approach focusing on the extent to which informal carers who work are supported by the welfare state of the country they live in.

Our research combined results from statistical analysis and qualitative interviews in order to understand the factors affecting working carers’ decisions to reduce their working hours, or stop working altogether. To start with, we found that mid-life men were as likely to be providing care to their elderly relatives as mid-life women, however the type of care provided by men was more instrumental (e.g. financial responsibilities, gardening) compared to women who provided more intensive care (e.g. personal care, emotional support). This is in line with existing research using the same dataset.

When we investigated the impact of individual and family characteristics on people’s decisions about paid work, we found that being female, single never married, having financial issues, being an employee, and frequently meeting a parent were associated with economic activity reduction among working carers between the ages of 50 and 55. Being self-employed rather than an employee heightened the risk of reducing one’s paid work between the ages of 50 and 55. The same was true for carers who faced financial or their own health challenges, as these individuals were more likely to reduce or stop their work altogether. 

The qualitative interviews with the carers revealed complex considerations affecting their decisions about paid work, which related to their values and identity, family structure, life course events, and care intensity. As such, our findings lend support to the cultural, gender, care burden, and socio-economic and demographic theories, while there was not adequate evidence for us to assess the relevance of the institutional theoretical perspective. 

Recent research by Carers UK estimated that there are around 4.87 million carers juggling work and care, and 38 per cent of all interviewed carers reported that they had given up work to care. Against this background, our research highlights the importance of supporting informal carers who choose to combine their care provision with paid work. Flexible working hours and paid care leave should be considered as usual practice in the workplace, while the provision of care credits can offer both symbolic recognition of informal caring and a financial contribution to carers’ pension arrangements for later life.

In conclusion, this study is the first, to our knowledge, to combine quantitative and qualitative data from the NCDS in order to investigate the interaction between informal care provision in mid-life and the carers’ economic activity patterns using a mixed-methods approach. As such, the study improves and enriches our understanding of carers’ decisions about their economic activity. In addition, our research contributes to existing theoretical frameworks of understanding carers’ decisions about caring and working, by incorporating the concepts of value and identity from the carers’ perspective, against the background of a life course approach.


About the authors

Athina Vlachantoni is Professor of Gerontology and Social Policy at the University of Southampton.

Ning Wang is Researcher at East China University of Science and Technology.

Zhixin Feng is Associate Professor at Sun Yat-Sen University.

Jane Falkingham is VP International and Engagement at the University of Southampton.

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