‘Crisis of care’: Building livable, fulfilling helping careers

By Dawson Strand

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love.”

 –  Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition 

Some philosophers point to what has been termed a “crisis of care” in our current stage of capitalism. Economically speaking, care is often seen as a superfluous expense that tends to decrease short-term profit margins. However, care work is integral to our survival as a society: Environmental conservation, education, childcare … the list goes on. This work is vital; so, why do caring professionals so often find themselves struggling with guilt and burnout?  

Unfortunately, those who follow their hearts’ call to care often find themselves sucked into an economic and moral vacuum where they must either participate in exploitative systems or themselves be exploited. Positions are often underpaid, overworked or even outright abusive. The majority of care labour – often, child or elder care undertaken by women on top of another job – isn’t paid or even tracked by common economic measures.   

Despite the broad economic disregard for caring professions under capitalism, there is an increasing trend among younger generations to prioritize such themes as meaning, service to humanity and purpose (rather than earning potential) as career aspirations. And – welcome or not – Gen Z is being handed the reins to “save the world” in popular discourse. So, amid global crises, rampant exploitation and generational guilt trips, how can young professionals stay sensitive, avoid burnout and have fulfilling careers in care work?   

Let’s start with the caring heart, and how – with self-reflection – to tell it apart from a stomach overflowing with acidic guilt. I see this process as central to how career practitioners might support young professionals considering careers in care. The first task is to distinguish between what is compulsion and what is love. This may involve some frank conversations with early career professionals about what role guilt plays in their life.  

To do care work, we must first know something about caring relationships. I’ve learned much here from Potawatomi author and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer and the Anishinaabe teachings from which she draws. Kimmerer teaches us about reciprocal relationships, and to dismantle the notion that caring relationships have anything to do with performance, production, output or transactions. Kimmerer suggests that caring relationships are reciprocal, meaning they are not ones we can repay but are ones that we honour out of gratitude. The crux here is that to honour something says less about the amount that is given or to whom, and more about the spirit or mindset that we give from.  

I’ll give an example here: We were all born incredibly dependent and unable to take care of ourselves. We needed doctors, nurses, parents, educators, mentors, a home … and yet, to honour those gifts of care does not necessarily mean that you must parent your parent or teach your teachers. To honour our gratitude for this care may lead us to give in many ways. Instead of demanding particular results, acting from gratitude is flexible, and puts you more in touch with what you care about and what you actually have to give.  

So, how do we recognize and cultivate this kind of understanding in a world that is so geared toward short-term outputs and transactions? Here are some questions to prompt reflection:  

  • Does my caregiving feel like a debt that is weighing on me? Or does it feel like giving?  
  • What do I tell myself in moments when I am unable to wholeheartedly give care? Am I measuring myself only in terms of output?  
  • Am I receiving all the care I need? Am I connected to communities of reciprocal caring that inspire me?  
  •  Is there a particular outcome that I am demanding of myself as a result of my care? Can I be gentler with myself?  
  • What kinds of care do I feel most grateful for? How would I like to pass this forward? (Notice I am saying “forward,” not “how do I pay this back”) 

These reflections may take us to many places, and I hope that you will be gentle with yourself even if you find that your caring activities have not been as authentic as you would like. Ideally, this kind of reframe responds to burnout in that it makes hope for a particular outcome (and guilt upon falling short) an unnecessary pre-condition for care, and, as such, care careers. We have limited control over the world at large – yet that should never invalidate our love for it.    

Organizing: Scaled thinking 

Living in our modern, globalized world, exposure to ecoanxiety and global injustice is soaring. We digest global crises with our breakfast cereal. To avoid overwhelm in the face of immense challenges, it is important that we are grounded at the local level. This brings us to the concept of scaled thinking, developed and discussed by Dr. Chris Peet and colleagues. 

Scaled thinking involves the recognition that while we are confronted with global problems, we live and respond on a local level. When we try to confront these issues on their own terms, it’s paralyzing. However, when we attune to global issues at a local level, there tends to be more hope, solidarity and options for sustainably creating “glocal” change.  

Here are some questions that career practitioners might ask young professionals to encourage scaled thinking:   

  • Is anyone else in my life concerned with this issue?  
  • At what level (municipal, national, etc.) is most of the news I consume about this issue?  
  • What organizations in my community, school or city are engaged with this?  
Conclusion: Spaces of reciprocal caring 

In many professions of care, burnout is the devil and self-care is the sermon. We hear no end to the preaching. In my experience, self-compassion is a necessary and insufficient condition to being well in the world of caring. In this post, I have attempted to complexify the issue beyond the individual. Central here is the admonition that fields of professional caring are often hostile to the very hearts they need, and instead of preaching self-care, we need to develop ways of fostering communities of solidarity and mutual care. I hope that this post will be both validating and useful to those considering professions of care – that you won’t burn out on guilt-ridden abstractions but rather find yourself in service of something truly worth defending.  

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