Media outlets, and in particular the New York Times, have frequently suggested that mothers – and in particular, well-off, well-educated mothers in their 30s – have been more and more frequently “opting out” of jobs and careers in order to become full-time homemakers. Linda Hirshman recently declared in The American Prospect that “among the affluent-educated-married population, women are letting their careers slide to tend the home fires.”
All of these articles were based on a mixture of anecdotes, bad data, and quasi-relevant data. The most relevant data – the labor force participation rates of women with and without children – is collected by the federal government, but hasn’t been looked at in these articles. Economist Heather Boushey has put together the data and published the unsurprising truth: women with children are not more likely to opt out nowadays than in previous decades. In fact, the “child penalty’ to the likelihood of women working has been in steady decline for years.
The above image, simplified and adapted from Boushey’s analysis, gets the central point across. Although all women have been less likely to be working in recent years (due to the job market’s slow recovery from the last recession), the labor force participation rate (LFPR) of women with children hasn’t gone down any faster than the LFPR for women in general. And although it’s true that mothers are less likely to work than non-mothers, that difference has become smaller over the years – just the opposite of what “opt-out revolution” articles claim.
How about those highly-educated thirtysomething moms the media has been so focused on (even though such moms are only 3.2% of all U.S. moms)? According to Boushey, these folks are the most likely to work of all American mothers; and, contrary to media claims, their LFPR has been steady or rising, not dropping.
(However, Boushey also made the interesting finding that among women who don’t work, highly-educated thirtysomething women are especially likely to have children at home. Part of the reason for this is that women with more education are more likely to have put off having children until their thirties. Another reason may be that for women with really good job prospects, nothing short of children at home is enough to convince them to “opt out.”)
I wonder if the media will give the empirical evidence the same coverage they gave the opt-out myth? I won’t hold my breath. Boushey’s full report can be read here.
UPDATE: The New York Times business section has a decent story on it.