September 22, 2005

· Sociology

What with all the kerfuffle about the NYT article on Ivy League women and their labor market / parenting plans, I took a look at some BLS data on long-term trends in earnings patterns within families, and in mothers’ labor force participation. Here are a couple of figures I created that capture some of what’s been happening in these areas over the past thirty-odd years.


The first figure shows trends in earning patterns within families. (You can get it as a PDF file.) Here you can see that even in 1967, when the series starts, families where the Husband was the only earner were already a minority of all families. By the 1990s, there were almost as many families with no earners as families where only the Husband was working. The percentage of families where only the Wife was working rose from 1.7 to 5.2 percent from 1967 to 2003. The percentage of families where both the husband and wife were working peaked in 1999 (at just over 60 percent) and has fallen slightly since then. Note that this figure doesn’t tell you how earning patterns change once families have children, just the absolute numbers of each type, whether they have children or not.


The next figure shows trends in the labor force participation rate of mothers with children under the age of 18. (You can get it as a PDF file.) Here the trend (obviously) is one of consistent growth—though again, even in 1975 47 percent of mothers (with children under 18) were in the workforce. Their participation rates peak in 2000, at just shy of 73 percent. By 2004 the rate had dropped two percentage points to 70.7 percent. Note that this figure doesn’t tell you how participation rates vary by household income.

The timing of the declines in both dual-earner families and mothers’ labor force participation look to me as though they are driven by sensitivity to prevailing labor market conditions rather than any widespread change in attitudes to work and motherhood. But what do I know? At any rate, it’s good to have a resource like the BLS to hand, if only to add a bit of context to your survey of 60-odd Yale and Harvard students.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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