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The work of caring for older adults and people living with disabilities is often physical — changing sheets, carefully lifting and washing bodies, monitoring and administering medication — but just as frequently emotional. Companionship and compassion are skills difficult to outsource or automate.

While care work seems fairly safe from automation, however, it faces pressure from two other directions: an enormous surge in demand as developed societies age and the low regard most people have traditionally held for care workers themselves. By 2050, the United Nations projects that the world’s population aged 80 and over will triple.

But care workers are already a vulnerable group — and, unless those vulnerabilities are addressed, the problem will only grow as the number of people employed in this industry increases.

Historically, care has been seen as women’s work; it was long voluntary or unpaid and thus systematically devalued. Even today, most care workers in developed countries are still women and disproportionately women of color, migrant women, or women of marginalized social status.

They often work part time and have inconsistent hours. In the United States, the profession’s historical associations with black women have led to harsher conditions and a deeper contempt. Long-standing racial exclusions from labor protections and a culture that has failed to adequately value or support caregiving have resulted in high turnover rates, worker shortages, and, ultimately, lower quality care. The median annual pay for home care jobs hovers around $13,000 in the United States — barely above the federal poverty level. As a result, more than half of all U.S. care workers rely on some form of public assistance.

Read more in Foreign Policy.

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