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November 2010, Vol. 133, No. 11
Reversals in the patterns of women’s labor supply in the United States, 1977–2009
Diane J. Macunovich
Diane J. Macunovich is a professor at the University of Redlands and an economist with the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Despite strong increases in women’s labor force participation—especially among married women with children—in the 1980s, and somewhat less strong increases in the 1990s, the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen declines across the board; these have been especially marked among single women, women with no children, and women with more than 16 years of education.
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Most analyses of women’s labor force participation in the past 15 years or so have focused on married women. The labor force participation rate of this group increased dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s, as reported by Marisa DiNatale and Stephanie Boraas,1 and Chinhui Juhn and Simon Potter,2 among many others. But the labor force participation of married women—especially those with children—increased only marginally in the 1990s, and began to decline toward the end of that decade. For married women with children, for example, the rate increased from 39.7 percent in 1970 to 66.3 percent in 1990, but then to only 70.6 percent in 2000; the rate was 69.3 percent in 2007. For married mothers with infants, the rate peaked in 1997, at 59.2 percent, and declined to 53.5 percent by 2005.3 The decline in married women’s labor force participation in the last decade has been chronicled anecdotally in the popular press, where reporters tend to refer to it as the "opt-out revolution."4 Claudia Wallis noted that opting out appears to occur more often among professional and managerial women, for whom "higher incomes permit more choices."5 Similarly, Katharine Bradbury and Jane Katz found that declines in labor force participation were highest among highly educated women and married women with young children and high-earning husbands.6 Opting out is also evidenced by Linda Hirshman’s survey of women whose marriages were reported in The New York Times, which showed that "half the wealthiest, most-privileged, best-educated females in the country stay home with their babies rather than work in the market economy."7 Similarly, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay suggest that a revolution is occurring among professional women in which employers accede to more flexible work schedules for working mothers.8
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2 Chinhui Juhn and Simon Potter, "Changes in Labor Force Participation in the United States," Journal of Economic Perspectives, summer 2006, pp. 27–46.
3 Sharon R. Cohany and Emy Sok, "Trends in labor force participation of married mothers of infants," Monthly Labor Review, February 2007, pp. 9–16, on the Internet at www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2007/02/art2full.pdf (visited Nov. 1, 2010).
4 Lisa Belkin, "The Opt-Out Revolution," New York Times Magazine, Oct. 26, 2003, on the Internet at www.nytimes.com/2003/10/26/magazine/the-opt-out-revolution.html (visited Nov. 1, 2010).
5 Claudia Wallis and others, "The Case For Staying Home," Time, Mar. 22, 2004, on the Internet at www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,993641,00.html (visited Nov. 1, 2010).
6 Katharine Bradbury and Jane Katz, "Women’s rise: a work in progress," Regional Review, first quarter 2005, pp. 58–67, on the Internet at www.bos.frb.org/economic/nerr/rr2005/q1/section5a.pdf (visited Nov. 1, 2010).
7 Linda Hirshman, "Homeward Bound," The American Prospect, Nov. 21, 2005, on the Internet at www.prospect.org/cs/articles?articleId=10659 (visited Nov. 1, 2010).
8 Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success (New York, Harper Collins, 2009), p. xviii.
Current Population Survey
Labor force experience of women from ‘Generation X’—Mar. 2002.
Labor force participation: 75 years of change, 1950-98 and 1998-2025.—Dec. 1999.
Labor force participation of older women: retired? working? both?—Sept 2002
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