Social Discrepancies at Stake
Many people today have moved away from their immediate family for education, work, or other reasons over which they may have little control. The move might be due to relocation, migration, or immigration, with permanent or temporary residence. With this movement, the traditional informal care provider, immediate family, and traditional kin become insufficient to people’s everyday need for care. Instead, people increasingly rely on those they encounter in their immediate lives. These people might include friends, flatmates, co-workers, neighbors, romantic partners, ex-romantic partners, and those fulfilling any level of intimacy between the significant- to less-significant-, yet present, other. The resulting networks of relationships become “new kinships”.
The “new kinships” do not have an inherent order, nor does an institution – legal or otherwise, support them. They stem from fluctuating life periods and intermingled life spheres that are made common by the globalization and an era of communicative capitalism, rather than continuing in the life path that was stereotypical to an industrial society. Whether exclusive or supplementary to immediate family relations, new kinships are crucial to everyday support systems, as movement and patterns of life are intensely diversified, for the very simple fact that everyone needs care.
However, new kinships are arguably harder to maintain. They require regular and committed exchanges of care to sustain, as they are not inherited by blood or backed by institutions. For the same reason, it is harder for people to make long-term “investment” to sustain new kinships. Not to mention that consistent effort is often contradictory to the nomadic lifestyle that has spurred the existence of new kinships in the first place. As the cost of living increases and under-waged freelance work expands, an increasing number of people drown in the rat race of the "Uberized" economy, in other words, the low-wage-gig economy running on corporate IT platforms. There is simply no time and energy to maintain these new kinship support systems and every attempt is costly.
Omnipresent digital platforms produce mass burnout and profound loneliness by enabling information overload and hyper-connectivity. The exhausting demand for people to manage miscellaneous relationships that are ephemeral, erratic, transactional, and ambiguous is impending. This demand for connectivity, as formal or informal work, bleeds into all times and spaces of life. Collaborations, compromises, and investments in long-term relationships become a de facto cost to the committed individual. Fervent inclinations to quick shots of affective fulfillment with no-commitment-required abound. These low-bar, low-cost sources are conveniently tucked into the same devices and platforms that fuel the gig economy. Social fabrics, social spaces, and social identities tear as communication technologies fragment and re-organize our relations to infinitely re-produce measurable and data for profit, and not by us. Our relationships, dwellings, intimate realms, connections, communications, care, and feelings shared with others are reduced, subsumed, and privatized by tech corporations. There is no haven.
Meanwhile, older populations are left behind in the excessively expanding metropolises with impermanent populations, or the ghost towns created by populations leaving to seek work. Instead of being able to rely on their children or stable and able communities, the elderly's daily needs for care and company are increasingly dependent on those of their own generation, such as their spouses, friends, and neighbors.
These informal care networks become weakened due to people’s changing mental and physical capacities caused by aging, illness and, simply, death, as well as personal evolutions over time and spaces of life, including growing apart, relocation, divorce, and changing interests. Yet, as fewer people have a lifelong partnership, and an increasing number of people will be unable to rely on a spouse to be the main provider for care and companionship. Combined with the increased life expectancy, the current predicament of the elderly population will only become more widespread and intensified. There was never a time when people experienced such a prolonged senior life and the family as the main informal care provider without clear forms of sufficient formal organizational support from the state and market to supplement the informal structures.
Care work, domestic labor, and reproductive labor at large were once shared among an extended family and community. As the nuclear family became the main social unit of society, this work of social reproduction has largely become the responsibility of a much smaller social unit. Further still, as we see an increase of the single working adult in contemporary urbanity, even smaller social units must shoulder this demanding labor. The increased amount of care work that falls on the shoulders of each person and family unit points to the on-going privatization, rather than socialization, of reproductive labor at large. This development creates the conditions for people to consider care labor as a private responsibility. With individual care burdens already high, asking another for help can be complicated: they already have their own responsibilities to manage. If one needs help, the straightforward solution is to get help from the market – to pay in exchange for a service – rather than asking for help from a close relative.
The privatization of care work intensifies the unequal distribution of care across gender, race, class, and citizenship. While the demand is high, the low-wage care labor often leads to under-recognition of care worker and value of care, which makes it extremely difficult to invite a more diverse pool of people to join the work, even though care is universally needed and should be given and received by everyone.
Such inequalities are also echoed across the sprawl of commoditized emotional labor in the broad sector of service-based work. The latter includes traditional jobs in hospitality, education, and healthcare, and in independent entrepreneurism, cultural sectors, and many specialized fields that increasingly require tasks of cross-disciplinary collaborations, administration, and management labor in addition to original roles, all the while in deepening precarious conditions. Emotional management has increasingly become more than an asset to occasionally be called upon; instead, it is a standard requirement for job applications that are not (explicitly) financially recognized. The privatization of care work (in the broadest sense) has expanded from physical labor to cognitive labor, alienating individuals from the inside out.