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February 2007, Vol. 130, No. 2
Trends in labor force participation of married mothers of infants
Sharon R. Cohany and Emy Sok
The most striking feature of women’s labor market gains during the post-World War II period was the entry of married mothers into the work force. In 1948, only about 17 percent of married mothers were in the labor force. By the 1980s, labor force participation had become an integral part of their lives. In 1985, for example, 61 percent of married mothers were working or looking for work. (See chart 1.) By 1995, their labor force participation rate had reached 70 percent. In fact, married mothers accounted for most of the increase in total labor force participation during the post-war period.1
In recent years, however, the labor force participation of married mothers, especially those with young children, has stopped its advance.2 In 2005, the participation rate of married mothers with preschoolers was 60 percent, about 4 percentage points lower than its peak in 1997 and 1998.3 Married mothers with children under a year old (infants) showed the most dramatic changes. After reaching a peak of 59.2 percent in 1997, the participation rate for married mothers of infants fell by about 6 percentage points to 53.3 percent in 2000 and has shown no clear trend since then. In comparison, the participation rate of married mothers of school-age children (aged 6 to 17) fell by just 2 percentage points, from 77 percent in 1997 to about 75 percent in 2005.4 (See chart 2.)
This article explores the characteristics of married mothers of infants and recent trends in their labor force participation. The data in this article are from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly survey of 60,000 households that provides a large amount of demographic, family relationship, and labor force information.5
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1 For a detailed description of trends in labor force participation since World War II, see Abraham Mosisa and Steven Hipple, "Trends in labor force participation in the United States," Monthly Labor Review, October 2006, pp. 35–57. For the latest BLS labor force projections, see Mitra Toossi, "Labor force projections to 2014: retiring boomers," Monthly Labor Review, November 2005, pp. 25–44. Longer term perspectives on women’s changing roles are presented in Mitra Toossi, "A century of change: U.S. labor force from 1950 to 2050," Monthly Labor Review, May 2002, pp. 15–28; and Claudia Goldin, "The Quiet Revolution That Transformed Women’s Employment, Education, and Family," The American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings of the One Hundred Eighteenth Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association, Boston, MA, January 6–8, 2006, May 2006.
2 Data prior to 1994 are from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (formerly called the Annual Demographic Supplement) to the Current Population Survey. Starting in 1994, data are annual averages compiled from monthly estimates, unless otherwise noted.
3 The labor force participation rate is the labor force level for a particular group divided by the civilian noninstitutional population of that group. The labor force is the sum of the employed plus the unemployed.
4 Previous interruptions in the growth of women’s participation rates were analyzed in two articles by Howard Hayghe: "Are women leaving the labor force?" Monthly Labor Review, July 1994, pp. 37–39; and "Developments in women’s labor force participation," Monthly Labor Review, September 1997, pp. 41–46.
5 In this article, a mother is defined as a woman with one or more own children under the age of 18 with whom she lives. Children include sons, daughters, adopted children, and stepchildren. Not included are nieces, nephews, grandchildren, other related children, and unrelated children. A married mother is a mother whose husband is present in the household.
Related BLS programs
Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey
at work: a visual essay.—Oct.
Developments in women's labor force participation.—Sept. 1997.
Are women leaving the labor force?—July 1994.
Married mothers' work patterns: the job-family compromise.—June 1994.
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