Working Family Caregivers: Diverse, Growing and Poised for Powerful Economic Contribution

America, as we know it, is changing. AARP for several years has been calling attention to the unprecedented aging of the population—a trend that is not only national, but global. Meanwhile, and perhaps this has become more a part of the public consciousness, there is another megatrend that the latest U.S. Census research recently punctuated with hard data: America as a nation is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever.

Those two trends converge in many ways and on several key issues facing America. One of them involves family caregiving, and the people who perform this crucial role in everyday life—while, in the majority of cases, also holding down jobs and contributing as key members of the nation’s workforce. Regardless of the diverse array of ethnicities, races, cultures and other identities making up the nation’s “care force,” every single one of the millions of family caregivers is bound by one common need: proper support to succeed in the multiple roles they must perform every day.

Investing in adequate support that affects millions is hard work, of course. But putting in place those supports is good for America’s economy—and therefore, good for everyone.

Growing Need

With the rapidly aging population comes a burgeoning need for family caregivers, and today an ever-growing number of people find themselves taking on these life-altering roles. They help family members and friends with bathing, dressing, wound care and medication management. They provide transportation to medical appointments, manage personal finances, keep pantries filled and ensure countless other needs are met.

‘The diversity within this care force is impressive.’

Already, the number of people performing such tasks every day is staggering. According to AARP’s 2020 Caregiving in the United States report, roughly 48 million people in the United States provided unpaid care to an adult—a significant increase from the 40 million there were in 2015, the year of the last such study.

The diversity within this care force is equally impressive. The report shows that 17 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino, 14 percent as non-Hispanic African American or Black, 5 percent as Asian American and Pacific Islander and 3 percent as another race/ethnicity, including multiracial. And, of course, as the country continues to become more diverse, so will the care force.

A Challenge Like No Other

Caregiving is a tough job. It often requires extra spending that typically runs into thousands of dollars (more on that below), new skills that many people would never have dreamed of needing, a seemingly infinite supply of emotional energy and, ultimately, plenty of time. It’s important to remember, therefore, that family caregivers must simultaneously attend to their own life needs as well (and perhaps those of other family members). Most family caregivers are employed at some time while providing care, meaning that the workforce and care force overlap tremendously. Not surprisingly, given such factors as stress and time consumed by the responsibilities, caregiving often contributes to social isolation and loneliness.

The result is that people’s caregiving responsibilities can interfere with their work lives in any number of ways, often requiring them to take time off (scheduled or unscheduled) or, worse, leave the workforce altogether—causing a cascading effect of impacts, from lost wages for that month’s bills, to previously planned upon lost retirement savings. Many family caregivers report making one or more workplace accommodations, including coming in late, leaving early, turning down a promotion, shifting from full-time to part-time work and in some cases leaving their position.

Thus, in the workplace, any given caregiver faces unique challenges, including potential discrimination resulting from their caregiving role, inflexible work environments and other obstacles. Meanwhile, the caregivers who face the greatest day-to-day obstacles at work are those who lack such benefits as paid leave (i.e., family medical leave, sick days, vacation).

Those challenges are universal to all caregivers. But it should come as no surprise that those same obstacles loom even larger for certain communities of caregivers.

Inequity Arises Here, Too

The pandemic has highlighted so many ways in which disparities manifest, and, sure enough, many of those disparities reach deep into family caregiving. While family caregivers from all walks of life are often penalized or experience discrimination in the workplace, African American caregivers are more likely to report having experienced such caregiving-related experiences. Even the financial cost of family caregiving seems to hit certain communities harder.

‘Workplaces must become more flexible and provide the right benefits so working family caregivers can thrive in their dual roles.’

AARP’s 2021 Caregiving Out of Pocket report found that overall, in 2021 family caregivers spent more than a quarter (or $7,242) of their income, on average, on out-of-pocket expenses—a head-turning data point. Yet the strain was even greater on Latino and African American caregivers, who spent 47 percent ($7,167) and 34 percent ($6,746) respectively, of their incomes on out-of-pocket expenses.

And then there is the emotional toll. Multicultural family caregivers appear to be more affected in this area as well, as they tend to have fewer social connections when compared with their White counterparts. Black family caregivers, in particular, are most at risk of being socially isolated and less satisfied with the quality of their social relationships. An article published in Generations Today reports that a quarter of all African American caregivers say they have no family friends or neighbors to help them.

The ROI of Putting People First

Family caregivers play a crucial role in society, and they deserve better. Moreover, issues of inequity and disparities loom over the nation; as it grows ever-more diverse, viewing family caregiving in this context becomes all the more important. Moreover, support at the community and individual level must reflect the needs of increasingly diverse communities.

A path forward is visible. And the kind of support that must happen is not only within reach, it would be a tremendous win for the U.S. economy. Family caregivers of all ages, especially those ages 50 and older, are major contributors to businesses—and the economy overall—as they are often in the prime of their careers and possess valuable skills and experience. Contrary to stereotype, those ages 50 and older—who comprise a large chunk of all caregivers—are the ones most likely to be starting businesses.

The numbers confirm this reality. An AARP report recently found that if family caregivers ages 50 and older gain the support they need in the workplace, the U.S. GDP could in 2030 grow by $1.7 trillion. With the United States facing unprecedented economic and public health challenges, the growing ages 50 and older population will play a critical role in the nation’s recovery.

Some jurisdictions around the country have begun to see the importance of the issue, which will only grow as megatrends mature. Laws that in some way protect family caregivers from workplace discrimination are on the books in localities in 21 states. Still, only one state— Delaware—and the District of Columbia, specifically include family caregivers as a protected classification under state discrimination law. As Americans remain active in the workforce for longer—and as family caregiving becomes increasingly prevalent—more states must follow their lead.

More generally, through both law and business practice, workplaces must become more flexible and provide the right benefits so working family caregivers can thrive in their dual roles. Employers must acknowledge the pervasiveness of family caregiving, and the sizable overlap between the workforce and the care force.

Whether we realize it or not, we are all counting on these investments. The caregiver—the one rushing to and from work to support their loved one—is counting on it. Even the employer, though perhaps not yet entirely aware of the talent hanging in the balance, is counting on it.

Thus, proper caregiver support is a must. America is counting on it.

Jean C. Accius, PhD, is senior vice president of Global Thought Leadership at AARP, in Washington, DC.