August, 2000, Vol. 123, No.8
Married women, work, and values
An examination of the relevant data shows a continuing secular increase in the labor force participation of married women—a phenomenon Ralph Smith called a "subtle revolution" two decades ago.1 However, this growth has slowed down in recent years and has at times been interrupted by factors such as increased educational investment among married women, the recession of the early 1990s, a rising birthrate, and a slowdown in women’s return to work after giving birth.2 The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by the year 2008, women will form 48 percent of the labor force, compared with 46 percent in 1998.3 Women in their forties who are not in the labor force mostly are taking care of their family (58 percent) or are retired (29 percent).4
Cross-sectional studies usually have supported the idea that the higher the husband’s income, the lower is the labor force participation rate of his wife. This relationship is just what the theory of the backward-bending supply curve would predict—a strong inverse relationship, other things being equal, between husbands’ income and women’s participation rate. A wife’s freedom from the labor market is looked at as a normal good. So, accordingly, only "poor" women work out of economic necessity. Husbands with higher incomes would tend to have a smaller proportion of wives in the labor force, because they could afford the luxury of stay-at-home wives and the wives could be relieved of the stress of contributing to the family income. However, considering the rise in real income that, in general, has taken place over time, the increase in labor force participation of wives in recent years generates some doubt about the presumptive relationship. The need for money to help make ends meet seems to be one of the most popular explanations of wives working, but that can hardly be the reason for the rapid rise in married women’s participation rate,5 because wives stayed home in earlier decades, when their husbands were earning less. Needing money seems to be a universal and constant factor and thus cannot explain the increasing labor force participation of women.6
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1 Ralph E. Smith (ed.), The Subtle Revolution: Women at Work (Washington, DC, The Urban Institute, 1979).
2 Aaron Bernstein, "Workers May Get Scarce, But Nobody’s Scared," Business Week, July 11, 1994, pp. 95–98; Howard V. Hayghe and Suzanne M. Bianchi, "Married mothers’ work patterns: the job-family compromise," Monthly Labor Review, June 1994, pp. 24–30.
3 Howard N Fullerton, Jr., "Labor force projections to 2008: steady growth and changing composition," Monthly Labor Review, November 1999, pp. 19–32; see also "Labor Force,"(PDF 105K) special issue of Occupational Outlook Quarterly, winter 1999–2000, p. 37.
4 Work and Family: Women in Their Forties (Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 1993).
5 Victor R. Fuchs, How We Live (Cambridge, ma, Harvard University Press, 1983).
6 Nathan Keyfitz, "Population Appearances and Demographic Realities," Population and Development Review, March 1980, pp. 47–64.
Related Monthly Labor Review articles
Marriage, children, and women's employment: what do we know?—Dec.
Labor force projections to 2008: steady growth and changing composition.—Nov. 1999.
Developments in women's labor force participation.—Sept. 1997.
New data on multiple jobholding available from the CPS.—Mar. 1997.
Are women leaving the labor force?.—July. 1994.
Married mothers' work patterns: the job-family compromise.—June. 1994.
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