More Thoughts on (Not) Staying at Home

Over the past week, I’ve posted a lot about a certain New York Times story about women at elite colleges planning "careers" as stay-at-home moms. It’s been my contention that the trend is bogus–that women are not leading a charge back to the nursery and the kitchen, mostly because they cannot afford to "opt out" of the workplace. I’ve argued that that’s true for most women, and also for women who are college educated.

Last weekend, I had an email exchange with a blog reader who pointed out data that seemed to contradict my dismissal of the the trend. According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of women who had a child in the last year, and had at least a bachelor’s degree, had declined more than just a little bit. In 1990, 68% of educated women with infants were in the labor force. The number climbed to 68.5% in 1998, which was an all-time high. It then fell in 2000, to 63.8%, which was the first significant decline since the Census Bureau started keeping track in 1976. The number fell again a little in 2002, to 63.5%. You can see these data here, and for a look all the way back to 1976, click here.

Obviously, these data also show that a solid majority of moms work. But there is this puzzling, rather dramatic decline between 1998 and 2000 –and yes, it’s only two years worth of data, so we must be careful not to overreact–but I think it’s still worth asking why that decline happened, after decades of steady increase.

But before I do.

Dedicated readers might be wondering how this squares with what I reported in this post.  (Particularly, when I said that 69% of all married moms with kids worked, and that it had only wobbled by a few tenths of a percentage point over the past few years.) Obviously, the stats are measuring different things. The stats that I reported concerned married women with any children, regardless of the age of those children– not just children born in the last year. I also didn’t look at the education level of the women originally. You can see the data that I used last time for yourself here, at table 579.

Okay, getting back to the trend. Are educated moms indeed opting-out, deciding to pack in the careers so that they can pack Junior’s lunch?

I think not. These data are telling more of an economic story than they are telling a social one. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, we started to see a growth in service sector jobs that required workers with less education. And in fact, we can see this shift in the data about moms with infants. The percentage of moms with infants who had an Associate’s degree jumped, from 59.5% in 2000 to 70% in 2002, at about the same time that the percentage of working moms with Bachelor’s degrees declined. The percentage of moms without a high school diploma that worked increased between 1998 and 2000 as well.

Now, these figures don’t have a direct relationship to each other, since the labor force participation rates of moms with Bachelor’s degrees that work is not affected in any way by the labor force participation rates of moms with Associate’s degrees, or without high school diplomas for that matter. But it was that difference in those numbers that put me on to what was really happening.

While it’s provocative to believe that there’s something retro happening with educated Moms, backing away from feminism and so on, the fact of the matter is that across the board, labor force participation for all people with Bachelor’s degrees –male and female–declined during the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. In 1995, 81% of college grads worked. By 2002, that fell to 78.1%.  For men, the percentage fell from 85.8% to 83.2%, and for educated women, it fell from 75.4% to 73.1%. Much of the fall-off happened between 1995 and 2000, the same time that the share of educated moms fell the fastest. (You’ll find the data here, at table 573.)

I don’t think we can reasonably expect that percentage of educated moms with newborns will rise at a time when the labor force participation rates for all educated women and men is falling.   It also seems to me that all this talk about opting-out as a "choice" afforded by higher economic status, may actually in fact  be a case of educated moms (and educated women and men) facing a tighter labor market. This is not a short term trend: the jobs that are expected to experience the largest growth over the next decade are mostly those that don’t require a Bachelor’s degree, or indeed, any formal education at all. (Check it out here, at table 599.) After registered nurses (Associate’s degree job), the fastest growing jobs will be for retail sales clerks,customer service representatives, and food preparation workers.

Which in some ways is scary, and in other ways, not so scary, since fewer than 3 in 10 of us have a Bachelor’s degree or more — the economy can’t reasonably create a majority of its jobs for us. (And, as the number of people with Bachelor’s degrees continues to increase, it’s also sensible to wonder just what we’re going to do with all of these educated workers.)

Which, in a roundabout way, leads me back to one of my original points: it’s stupid to focus on the educated women, or mothers, to the exclusion of all women or mothers, because it’s all interrelated. And when you look only at data pertaining to a small sliver of society, in this case, data on educated moms with infants,you’re going to get misled– as many smart people obviously have. What’s tragic is that the misled mislead the national conversation and debate on these very important questions.


2 thoughts on “More Thoughts on (Not) Staying at Home

  1. Well I have a bunch of things to say but just haven’t had time to do it over the last few days.

    First, the NYT reporters story and survey are lacking a bit to say the least. Slate’s piece does a good job without even seeing the survey of pointing out the flaws in her writing. She over generalizes and draws conclusions about things she has no right to do based on what she asked. I also think that much of her story had to be drawn from these interviews she did and less from the survey unless her respondents are different than any I have ever known.

    Some basic critiques of her survey: her method, her questions (loaded and confusing), and her sample. I’m sure not all of you care about the details, so I’ll try not to be too boring but give some basic examples.

    Her method and sample – If she has an ‘in’ at Yale to be able to do this research as she claims, then why not really do the study? Even if she chooses the email approach, why just freshman and seniors, why these 2 residential colleges? And in her posted response on the methods, she confounds it more by admitting after getting the first few responses, she added more questions and then sent out the email again. She now has 2 different sample sets – they answered different questions and in a different order probably, she just built in a bunch of different bias.

    Her questions – They aren’t nearly as misleading as I thought they would be, but let me say that’s still not a compliment. First she begins with a completely loaded question – “When you have children…”. She sets it up so that anyone who says they don’t want to have children will probably not have continued with the survey. I know I wouldn’t have, personally. And therefore has a further skewed sample. Many of her questions are confusing “How certain do you feel that your above answers will represent what you’ll feel when you actually have kids?” I don’t even know how to go about answering that – questions are supposed to be simple and straight forward so that everyone answers the same question. There are ways to ask what she wants to know, but she didn’t do it. She sets up places where the answers give her false ‘yes’ responses like about the moms staying at home. Most data shows that even mothers who choose to stay at home do so for increasingly shorter periods of time, so if your mom stayed home for a year when you were born you could answer her question as ‘yes’ my mom was a stay at home mom. In the next sentence you would get to the part of the details where you can explain that it was only a year, etc… but she has her number now to use based off the first question.

    While I have further examples, I guess that’s enough about the merits of really being a researcher when you do research for the moment.

  2. What’s scary is none of those fast-growing jobs typically pay a living wage – they’re all minimum-wage deals, with lots of part timers, contract workers, and other sleazy ways of avoiding providing health insurance. When you say, “After registered nurses (Associate’s degree job), the fastest growing jobs will be for retail sales clerks,customer service representatives, and food preparation workers” I read it as “After registered nurses, the fastest growing jobs will increase the size of the working poor who use emergency rooms for primary care and live six to a room in East New York.”


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