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.