The Burnout Crisis in Pink-Collar Work

Plus: A housing revolution is coming.

Medical workers walk near NYU Langone Health hospital in New York City on September 29, 2020
Medical workers walk near NYU Langone Health hospital in New York City on September 29, 2020 (Noam Galai / Getty)

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The teachers, nurses, and child-care workers who haven’t already left their jobs because of low pay and stress are hitting their limit. Annie Lowrey, who recently wrote about this crisis, explains why bettering these “pink-collar” jobs would bolster America’s economy, and society itself, for decades to come.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Compounding Strain

Isabel Fattal: How did the pink-collar crisis come about?

Annie Lowrey: Measures of workplace strain and burnout are increasing across the entire country. COVID, the economic fallout from COVID, inflation, perhaps geopolitical strife—all those things are playing in. In the caring professions, which tend to be majority-female workforce, there’s evidence that the on-the-job situation for a lot of these workers has gotten worse. They are being worked harder. Nurses are looking after more patients. Hospitals and clinics are understaffed. They’re encountering more threats, violence, and political pressure on the job.

Jobs in child-care and other pink-collar fields are very low-compensated. But at the same time, the labor market is strong and the unemployment rate is low, which is giving people the chance to leave for other positions. And that puts strain on the people who remain. So there’s this kind of flywheel.

Isabel: Why does this hurt women, and women of color in particular, more than other workers?

Annie: You can think about this both in terms of the internal industry strain that a lot of these workers, who are often disproportionately but not exclusively female, are feeling. And when we have shortages and burnout in these sectors, what does that do societally? There, women also pay the price. When we have shortages of day-care slots or special-education programs, very often it’s women who quit their jobs or rearrange their schedules to take care of things at home.

Isabel: In general, care work tends to be performed overwhelmingly by women of color and immigrant women, but the care-crisis discourse has been dominated by white and middle-class parents. Is there a tension here that’s holding back solutions?

Annie: It’s important to say that when we have broken markets or broken labor standards, that affects everybody, but it doesn’t affect everybody equally. I think about this in terms of the housing crisis sometimes. It is true that very high-income families living in places like Brooklyn and San Francisco get squeezed by the housing crisis. They pay more than they want to, it’s hard for them to find a place, and maybe they don’t have the number of kids they want. It affects them, but that’s not to say that it affects them in the same way it affects someone who is, for example, undocumented and is in an unsafe living situation, or has gotten priced out such that they commute two hours every day.

I think about this crisis similarly. The burnout, the pay disparities, the danger on the job, the lack of child care—who is that affecting most? Immigrant women, low-income women, people who have other societal disadvantages or have been excluded in other ways. But it’s also pervasive. The market for child care, for example, just doesn’t work in the United States unless you’re very wealthy.

In terms of a class-solidarity thing, there’s an internal, uncomfortable question: Do things only change in the United States when wealthy white people want them to change? What does it take to actually have people realize how badly things are broken?

Isabel: Can you make the economic case for investing in pink-collar fields?

Annie: The economic case is certainly not the only reason to do it, and maybe it’s not the best reason to do it. But is it a reason to do it? Yeah, absolutely. The United States’ labor-force participation of working-age women is several points lower than Canada’s. We know that a lot of these women do want to work. They just can’t afford to, and there’s the question of who’s going to watch the kids. One of the fastest and easiest ways to boost GDP would be to provide child care. You offer a parent a couple years of “expensive help,” but then maybe that person has higher lifetime earnings for the rest of her life.

That long-range thinking is part of the reason that so many other countries spend so much more on this than we do. I hate to call these things expensive, because I really do think of them as being an investment. You can help make sure that kids are getting enough calories. You can help make sure developmental issues are getting caught early on. High-quality child care is so valuable to the whole economy for lots of reasons.

One of the things I come back to on this is: We have all this data showing that a lot of families would love to have more kids than they’re having, but it’s just too costly. So I think you can have a really pro-natal argument for this, too. If you knew you could get day care, would that mean that you might move closer to family, or open your own business, or take more risk? There’s all kinds of downstream things we don’t think about as much.

Isabel: Do you see a path toward solutions?

Annie: We got a really good, clear plan that came out through the Biden administration and the pressure of a lot of members of Congress. The plan would have capped family spending at 7 percent and would have functionally created a lot more day-care spots. But it was a heavy lift, and it didn’t make it through Congress.

There’s a Treasury report that came out that basically described child care as a failed market. In other cases, the government steps in and fixes markets that don’t work—famously, financial markets and insurance markets.

I think the ground has changed underneath our feet. You are starting to see cities and states get really aggressive with this stuff. I think this is something where you’ll start to see every presidential candidate get on board. It’s just a matter of when you can get the stars to align in Congress. I do sometimes wonder whether we’ll need another catastrophe before they’ll do it.


Today’s News
  1. Donald Trump requested that the Supreme Court intervene in the Justice Department investigation into his handling of sensitive documents.
  2. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed to a major cut in oil production that could raise the price of gas, increase the risk of global recession, and strengthen Russian military efforts in Ukraine.
  3. Alec Baldwin and Rust Movie Productions LLC have reached a settlement with the estate of the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who was killed when Baldwin discharged a prop gun on set in 2021.


Evening Read
a bird with a hand combing through its feathers
Evelyn Dragan / Connected Archives

Why Is Everyone Stealing Parrots?

By Daniel Engber

On a recent weeknight in Punta Gorda, Florida, a bird thief cut the power at a strip mall. It was roughly 2 a.m., a time when cockatoos and cockatiels are asleep; and also when, with its security cameras knocked offline, one might slip inside the coral-stucco storefront of the Parrot Outreach Society, a local rescue-and-adoption group with close to 100 animals on-site. “They knew how to grab ’em, that’s for sure,” says Susan Jennings, the society’s executive director and a former police officer. “They knew what they wanted, and they came and took it.”

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
illustration of a book with a runner-up medal
(Getty; The Atlantic)

Read. Simple Passion, by Annie Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie. Ernaux, a possible contender for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, is a pioneer of autofiction, and her 1991 classic might be the best book about an affair ever written.

Watch. Tár, an exploration of “cancellation” through the lens of a classical-music conductor, played by Cate Blanchett in what may be the actor’s career-best performance.

Play our daily crossword.


I asked Annie which movies or TV comforted her during her early-parenthood years. “Despite being very gravity-bound and not particularly mobile, I ended up watching a string of movies about climbing and mountaineering when my first son was born—The Dawn Wall, Free Solo, Valley Uprising, and, my favorite, Meru,” she said. “It’s a fantastic film about decisions I hope neither of my children will ever make and obsessions I pray they never have.”

— Isabel

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Kate Lindsay contributed to this newsletter.