Monday, September 04, 2006

On Women and Paid Work

Some interesting news on this topic:

The percentage of women returning to the workforce is again on the rise, after hitting a recent low in March 2005.

Some experts had attributed the drop to a cultural shift.

With the career-minded baby boom generation heading toward retirement — the oldest boomers turn 60 this year — some pundits speculated that a younger generation of women raised by working mothers was less inclined to pursue a career while raising a family.

However, they may have spoken too quickly.

Among women age 20 and older, 60.8% were working or looking for a job in July. That's close to the all-time peak of 61% that occurred in April 2000 and again in June 2003. In March 2005, the number had fallen to 60%.

Although the changes were small in percentage terms, some economists who track the role of women in the economy see great significance.

"I think it's one of the most important issues going on the labor market right now," said Vicky Lovell of the Institute for the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research. "Because women have been the workers fueling economic growth. It would be of great interest if women found work so inhospitable to be withdrawing from it."

Since 1960, workforce participation among women ages 20 and over rose from 38% to a peak of 61% in April 2000 and in June 2003. The falloff that began in 2003 and bottomed out last year, may have only been temporary.

"I think they are coming back now because jobs are coming around," said Sylvia Agretto, an economist and co-author of the latest edition of the "State of Working America."

It's all speculation, of course. Nobody really knows what's going on, and the increase in numbers is very slight. But make no mistake: If the statistics had shown the same absolute change but in the downwards direction, we'd be reading dozens of articles about women returning home to mind the kitchen fires. And not because of worsening labor markets but because they really, really want to do so.

Logic would require that the same people who came out with those pieces a year or two ago would now write the reverse stories about women deserting their kitchens (and their children, of course) for the excitement and business suits of the labor markets. That we are unlikely to read such articles shows how asymmetric the arguments are: whenever the numbers go down it's because of sociological reasons and women's "free choices", but whenever the numbers go up it's your usual economics jargon. This really doesn't make sense.
For a post on the labor markets in general, check this one.