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Young Carers and the Invisibility Cloak

Blog post by Chloe Alexander on our ECN 'Women and the Economy' blog series.

Chloe Alexander

In this fourth instalment of our ECN ‘Women and the Economy’ blog series, Chloe Alexander writes about the invisible care work that many young people do.

I spent last year learning from families about how they care for each other. I was researching the impact of policies on young carers and their families. A ten-year-old girl called Sapphire[1] took part in my study and she recommended that I should read one of her favourite books, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, so that I understand more about her. In the story Harry Potter receives a mysterious present, a cloak that makes its wearer invisible. He can then set out on adventures and learn things about the world that he is not supposed to see but he must be careful not to make his presence known.

It is easy to see why young carers like Sapphire see themselves in this story. They become knowledgeable about care in ways that adults might not expect, but are nonetheless overlooked by teachers, GPs and social workers. This invisibility of children’s roles in providing care becomes a problem when it means they are unable to access to support for themselves or their families. The majority of children will not be picked up in the local authority process of identifying and assessing the needs of young carers [2]. There is a long-standing concern that young carers remain ‘invisible’ and therefore cut off from public services[3]. As it happens, my research did not discover that this group of young children are wielding invisibility cloaks so we still need to pursue this question of young carer invisibility: how it happens and the links between public provision of care and young people’s care work.

Three aspects of my research help us unpick the ‘invisible’ young carer problem. We should put children’s care work in the context of the wider cultural and economic position of those involved in care. As with children, adults may also find surprisingly little notice taken of what they are doing when they are responsible for care, whether paid or unpaid. Care is undervalued, both culturally and economically. This is reflected in the difficulties for families trying to provide enough care with limited state investment in public services. It can also be seen in experiences of the care workforce, many of whom are women and migrant workers, who have to deal with low pay, little investment in training and job insecurity. The invisibility cloak over care is pretty powerful because it covers up socially vital work across paid and unpaid sectors of the economy, public services, private companies and informal domestic care provision.

We can also shed light on the problem of ‘invisible’ young carers by learning about the way that the majority of care is defined as a private matter. The welfare state in the UK assumes families will take on the bulk of responsibility for care. Public provision for young carers does not undo this central principle so services are not set up to see when families struggle with the amount of care needed. The limits imposed on services, for example, the rationing of people’s access to primary health care or mental health services, mean the families are implicitly told that difficulties with care are theirs to solve. The state offers some services but you will not be in a position to negotiate for anything more, although families with middle-class backgrounds can feel they are in a better position to do this, compared to working-class families.

Feminist economics has provided a valuable framework for thinking through the problems facing young carers but researchers and activists that focus on disability point out that there is a tendency to focus on the person doing care, rather than the person that receives that support. In my research I got to know whole families together, rather than each person in isolation, to see care as part of these relationships and to hear both the experience of being a carer and that of receiving care. Children and adults would hold back from talking about care because it was not just their story alone. When carers speak about care, they implicitly share something about the person who relies on their care. When receiving care is associated with ‘dependence’ we stigmatise people who receive care. In the case of young carers, we might also be giving them another difficult task: keeping quiet about the ways that their family depend on them and so making themselves ‘invisible’.

How do we make it easier for young carers to be visible? It would help young carers and their families if there was greater interest in and valuing of care generally. We should advocate for greater public investment so that the state shares responsibility for care and offers an adequate and robust care safety net for families. We should speak up for the validity of depending on someone’s care to challenge the stigma people feel and take the pressure off of those that try to keep quiet about their care work.


[1] This was a pseudonym chosen by the participant

[2] Children’s commissioner report on young carers

[3] Children’s Society hidden from view report

Chloe Alexander is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham (Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology) conducting research into the experiences of young carers in the UK.

Care work

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