Honey, I'm Home!

March 3, 2006

Oh, you mean mothers aren’t leaving the workforce in droves, realizing that “feminism has failed them,” and embracing happy housewifery as their true calling? This New York Times article is much drier that all those heaving proclamations, but it perhaps offers a more complete picture of what’s happening.

Basically, since the 1950s, women have been participating in the workforce in increasing numbers. This peaked in 2000 at about 77%, then leveled off, then dipped a bit. Part of that is attributable to a slowdown in hiring, which has affected men as well.

Since the 1960’s, tens of millions of women rejiggered bits of their lives, extracting more time to accommodate jobs and careers from every nook and cranny of the day. They married later and had fewer children. They turned to labor-saving machines and paid others to help handle household work; they persuaded the men in their lives to do more chores.

The prevailing theory is that women got as efficient as they could, balancing work and family responsibilities, then they hit a wall. There’s only so much one human can do in a given day. Especially a human with a toddler! Harvard University economics professor Claudia Goldin wondered aloud in a keynote speech whether “a ‘natural rate’ of labor force participation has been reached.”

Well, perhaps natural for this particular time and place. In countries (you know it’s gotta be Scandinavia!) with subsidized day care and generous maternity leave, the rate of labor force participation is higher. But there are all kinds of things that play in to whether and when you have a baby and whether or how much you work after that.

I like the attitude expressed in this Goldin quote. She’s talking about women (like me!) in their 30s who are working and caring for toddlers.

“There have been a lot more household responsibilities in this group.” “The fact that their participation rate has not declined much is what is surprising — not that there is a plateau.”