At first glance, the opt-out stories seem compelling because they appear to explain recent declines in mothers' labor force participation rates. It is true that fewer mothers were either at work or searching for work in 2004 than in 2000. However, between 2000 and 2004 participation rates fell not only for mothers, but also for childless women, childless men and fathers. By 2005 there were 4.8 million fewer men at women at work than would have been in the economy were doing as well as it was in 2000 -- and the majority of those who left the labor market were men.
In contrast to earlier recessions, women were especially hard hit by the rise in unemployment since the recession of 2001, but this applied to childless women as well as to mothers, suggesting that maternal "opt-out" was not the primary cause of recent labor market shifts. In fact, the impact of having children in the home on the likelihood that a woman will leave the workforce has become progressively smaller over the past two decades...
Among highly-educated women aged 25 to 45, the effect of having children on women's labor force participation rates has been negligible since 1984, and remains so today. So recent small changes in the behavior of some highly-educated women do not change the big story: The more highly educated a woman, the more likely she is to be in the labor force, despite the slight dip from 1993 to 2004. And for both college-educated and high school-educated women, the trend has been for mothers to become less likely, not more likely, to leave the labor force because of having children...
It is true that mothers are still more likely than fathers to stay home with a sick child or take a year or two off to care for a new baby. But this is changing. Women are less likely to leave the labor force today because they have children than they were two decades ago. This is a significant change in women's employment patterns and one that indicates that there is a revolution going-not an opt-out revolution, but an opt-in revolution.
All this is not to say that the increasing involvement of mothers in the workforce has not been stressful, for both women and men. Unfortunately, U.S. public policy still lags far behind that of other industrial nations, which provide far more generous family leave and flexibility benefits.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
The Opt-Out Myth?
In my March 26 post, I cited a widely reported-upon Bureau of Labor Statistics report that said more and more mothers are dropping out of the labor force to raise children. Today I read an interesting criticism of that report by economist Heather Boushey, prepared by the Council on Contemporary Families: