This is a serious problem, and -- barring the intervention of Providence, perhaps in the form of a worldwide pandemic, perhaps in the form of worldwide weather that only the vigorous young adult can survive -- it's going to get a lot worse. Very soon now, the percentage of our population that's made up of elders (senior elders as well as junior ones) is going to be much larger, and those elders are going to go on and on, year after year, needing care. More and more families are going to have to face the dilemma of caring for the children, the pets, the sick and injured, the elders, and -- somehow -- their own personal selves, while earning a living, all at the same time. That caregiving labor has to come from somewhere.
When a culture doesn't want to have to talk about something, the culture makes it cumbersome to do so. This is an excellent example of that phenomenon.
We don't have an efficient vocabulary for talking about the caregiving crisis. We don't have appropriate words for the kind of work that is, or for the kind of worker who does that work.
We have two excellent words for people-who-do-that-work that are well understood: "employee" and "servant." But neither of those can be used for Family Member X who is doing that work. Call X an employee, and -- oops -- we'd have to pay X money, and things like Social Security payments and regulations about overtime and [vamp till ready] would immediately kick in. Call X a servant and the same inconvenient financial repercussions would apply, with an extra penalty associated with class. What would people think if they knew that you were referring to your spouse or partner, for example, as a servant? That would make you a master, right? Or a mistress, in the plantationy sense of that word? Mercy. Can't have that.
How about calling Family Member X The Caregiver a "volunteer"? Volunteers don't get paid for their work, and the financial/bureaucratic repercussions don't happen with volunteers. But there's a problem here, since the word "volunteer" brings with it the semantic feature [voluntary]. It's extremely unlikely that anyone would voluntarily take on the entire workload of caregiving for the children and the pets and the sick and the injured and the elders and the house and [vamp till ready], especially when that person is also working at real [i.e., paid] work.
There's always the word "slave"; that's a good English word, and we all know what it means. But it certainly won't do, since -- according to the cultural fairytale script that we do talk about -- the person who is doing all this unpaid labor is perfectly free not to do it and can't be forced to do it. Right?
Let's see; what else is there.... Oh, yes. There's "housewife" and "househusband." [And, by extrapolation, "housepartner," I suppose.] And there's always "homemaker." If you read the Martha-Stewart-style magazines you'll discover that those are terms anybody could be proud to have as their identifying labels.
Please consider the following sentences. Would you consider them appropriate and acceptable?
1. "Among the guests at last night's banquet was distinguished housewife Clare Jones."
2. "Among the guests at last night's banquet was distinguished househusband James Jones."
3. "Among the guests at last night's banquet was distinguished homemaker Clare Jones."
4. "Among the guests at last night's banquet was distinguished homemaker James Jones."
We run into exactly the same problems when it comes to talking about the related topic of Family Member X who takes care of the endless cleaning that has to be done, over and over and over again, day after day and night after night, if the family is to avoid living in squalor. Often Family Member X The Cleaner and Family Member X The Caregiver turn out to be the very same individual.
Isn't English interesting?