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A Study of Intercohort Change in Women’s Work Patterns and Earnings

Anne Hill and June E. O'Neill


After remaining virtually constant during the post-World War II period, the ratio of women's earnings to men's increased sharply during the 1980's, rising from 59.7 percent in 1979 to 68.5 percent in 1989. The failure of the overall wage gap to narrow during the 1950-1980 period has been something of a puzzle. The labor force participation of women had escalated over the entire post World War II period, the women's movement had blossomed, and barriers to women's entry into many professions and occupations appeared to have eroded. Yet, overall women's relative earnings did not rise through the 1960s and 1970s.

Explanations for the apparent paradox have pointed out that during the post War period of rapid increases in the proportion of women who work, the experience level and other work related attributes of the average employed women did not increase, as less experienced women joined the ranks of the employed. The failure of the wage gap to narrow before 1980, therefore, can be partly explained by the failure of women's lifetime work experience to rise as new labor force entrants lowered the work experience of the average working woman.

This research utilizes data from the three continuing panels of the National Longitudinal Surveys (NLS) — the mature women, the young women, and the youth cohort — to measure accumulated years of work experience and to examine changes in life-cycle work patterns across successive cohorts of women born between 1923 and 1964.

This study has investigated how these successive cohorts of women have changed with respect to their accumulation of work-related skills, in terms of level of schooling, career orientation, and attachment to the labor force.

Our results provide evidence that work-related investments have increased from cohort to cohort among white women, although not necessarily for all cohorts of black women. And while we cannot determine from our analysis the extent to which women or their employers are responsible for the increased levels of investment, the former pattern of flat age-earnings profiles for women — the dead-end job syndrome — finally appears to have been overcome, which bodes well for future narrowing of the gender wage gap.