Thursday, March 02, 2006

Nothing New Here

Today's New York Times reports that, after decades of steady increases, women's labor force participation "has stalled, even slipping somewhat in the last five years and leaving it at a rate well below that of men."

Every time women's labor force participation slips a bit, out come the pundits to complete the narrative arc that so enamors those longing for the good old days—women have come to their senses and are returning home to raise their children. But a number of facts don't fit nicely into this narrative, such as:

1. Between 2000 and 2005, men's labor force participation fell MORE than women's (men: down 1.5 percentage points to 73.3 percent; women: down 0.6 percentage points to 59.3 percent).

2. Between 2000 and 2005, labor force participation rates declined for both men and women in every age group under age 55 (age groups 16-17, 18-19, and five-year age groups from 20-24 to 50-54). In four of the nine age groups under age 55, the decline in men's labor force participation was GREATER than the decline in women's participation. Isn't it probable that men's and women's rates are declining for the same reason? What is the reason, and why aren't men part of the discussion? Because it doesn't fit the story.

3. During soft economic times, women with young children will be more likely to stay home if they can afford not to work. This is not a new trend; it's just common sense. That explains why the biggest drop in women's labor force participation rate since 2000 has been among married women with preschoolers.

4. What about the impact of the growing Hispanic population on women's labor force participation? Hispanic women are less likely to work than Asian, black, or non-Hispanic white women. They account for a growing share of young adults, including 22 percent of married women under age 30. The lower participation rate of Hispanic women is no doubt depressing women's overall labor force participation. Just how much remains to be seen by someone willing to stray from the storyline.

5. The Times article comments that women's labor force participation is now stalled "far below" men’s in the same age group—implying that the "cultural transformation" brought about by working women has somehow fallen short of its goal. But this is a straw dog. No demographer has ever predicted that women's labor force participation would equal men's. Biology dictates that women will be more involved in childbearing and childrearing than men. Consequently, on average they will never participate in the labor force at the same rate as men.

6. The enormous rise in women's labor force participation rate was destined to run its course. Most women who want or need to work are now in the labor force. The small ups and downs from year to year in women's participation rate are recording only the decisions of women at the margins, not heralding a return to traditional family life.

Time for a new story.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Did the Post journalist who wrote last week's article contact you, or did she just read the blog? Just wondering.