Recherche Carnets de chercheur Ito Peng

Ito Peng

From Care Work and Migration to Care Economy in East and Southeast Asian Contexts



Population ageing is a global phenomenon, but nowhere is it more dramatic than in East Asia. This is because the size of East Asia’s ageing population is massive – currently accounting for nearly a third of the world’s older population – and the pace of ageing in the region is also dangerously fast. Of the 657 million people over the age of 65 in 2017 across the world, 199 million (30%) were living in East Asia. By 2030, the worldwide population of people 65+ is expected to increase to 997 million, and 307 million (31%) of them will be in East Asia (UN-DESA n.d.). The rapid population ageing, very low fertility, and changes in household arrangements such as increased women’s employment, sharp decline in multi-generation co-residency and increased family distanciation (meaning family members are living farther apart due to people moving to cities and other parts of the country and even to other countries for education and work) across East Asia are causing social and demographic shifts of epic proportions. In most East Asian countries the demand for child and elderly care is surging while labour forces are shrinking, and there are serious shortages of care workers.

As the local supply of care workers diminishes, many East Asian countries have come to rely on migrant domestics and care workers, many of them from Southeast Asia, or in the case of Chinese cities, from neighbouring rural provinces. Even those countries that have long resisted the use of foreign care workers, such as Japan, are now looking to them as an option for future. My research investigates care and migration in Asia Pacific contexts. I have been leading a large international multidisciplinary research project called, Gender, Migration and the Work of Care: International Comparisons, since 2013 (see; Michel and Peng 2017).1  In this project we investigate how changes in social, economic, political and cultural contexts across the globe have resulted in increased demands for care in richer countries and regions, and how this in turn has led to people (mainly women) from poorer countries/regions to migrate to the richer countries/regions to perform the work of care. There are eight research packages in this research large project, each of them led by one or two project leads. In addition to being the Principal Investigator of this project, I also lead a research package that focuses on the political economy and policy dimensions of care and migration in East and Southeast Asia. I am interested in how social, economic and political factors interact to shape the way people think about care and the use of care workers, how this in turn shape government policies on care and migration, how these policies change over time, and how policies and politics influence work and migration patterns of care workers.

My research has shown that, first, contrary to the commonly held assumption about East Asian countries having similar Confucian values around filial piety, in most countries families are actively outsourcing the care of their elderly members either by hiring foreign domestics or live-in caregivers through the private market (e.g. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) or through public long-term care services (e.g. Japan and South Korea). Similarly, more and more middle class families in East Asia are also outsourcing the care of their children to non-family care providers, such as live-in foreign domestic helpers/nannies (e.g. Hong Kong and Singapore), public or private early child education and care centres (e.g. Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, South Korea), and public or private childcare services (e.g. Japan and South Korea).

Second, the diverse approaches to outsourcing care in these countries can be explained by the combination of pre-existing social welfare institutions, how the governments see their roles in relation to care, the national employment structures, and national identity. This is interesting because it not only shows that the notions of Confucian filial piety and the ideas about family care are being rapidly transformed, but also that these transformations have led to diverse approaches to care within East Asia. It also reveals the growing importance of care as a driver of social and economic policies. As well, this research demonstrates new forms of inequality, between men and women based on gender, between women based on income and class, and between women based on their countries and regions of origins. In short, it reveals the different dimensions of inequality that span from individual to national to global levels, and how policies can contribute to, and as well, alleviate these inequalities.

Building on my last five years of research on this topic, I am now developing a new research focused on care economy. Care economy is premised on the idea that in almost all high and middle-income countries across the world, the main economic base has shifted from industrial/manufacturing to services sector, and that care is now a key driver of the new service sector economic growth and expansion. For example, today services generate more than two-thirds of global gross domestic products (GDP) and employ more people than industry and agriculture, hunting and forestry put together in advanced economies (OECD n.d., 2016). Even in China, service sector now makes up over 50% of the country’s GDP, and its government has been making a concerted effort to raise the sector’s GDP contribution up to 70-80% (Hsu 2017). Much of this will come in the form of care, such as childcare, elderly care, health care, education, and other social and personal services. This is a fascinating research area for several reasons. First, the expansion of care economy offers us a new way to think about today’s economic structure and how local/national and global economies intersect with each other. Second, because care is so closely associated with women and women’s work, it gives us a window to see how this new economy may shape and reshape gender relationships at individual, national and global levels. Third, care economy also provides us with a new lens to understand the formation of new forms of inequality along the lines of gender, class, race and ethnicity, and nation states. Care economy therefore opens up a number of key empirical and theoretical issues that are important for social scientists, researchers, and policy makers.

I am excited to spend from January to the end of May 2018 in EHESS to synthesize my Gender, Migration and the Work of Care research and to develop my new research project on care economy. Although my research focuses on East Asia and Asia Pacific, it is also highly relevant to Europe. As France and EU experience very similar social, demographic, and economic transformations as East Asia, cross-national and cross-regional learning will go a long way to developing effective and sound policies to address common issues in the two parts of the world (see Peng and Yeandle 2017).


Hsu, S. 2017. “China Takes Another Step Towards a Service Economy”, Forbes. February 21, 2017.

Michel, S. and I. Peng. eds. 2017. Gender, Migration and the Work of Care: A Multi-Scalar Approach to the Pacific Rim, Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave McMillan.

OECD. n.d. Labour Force Statistics

OECD. 2016. Service Trade Policies and the Global Economy

Peng, I. and S. Yeandle. 2017. Eldercare Policies in East Asia and Europe: Mapping policy changes and variations and their implications. New York: UN Women. >>> 

UN-DESA. n.d. World Population Prospects 2017

1: I am grateful to Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada/Conseil de Recherches en Sciences Humaines (SSHRC/CRSH) for their generous partnership grant for the support of this research project.