An “Opt-Out Revolution”?
In 2003 the various rumors and claims about the challenges of managing work and family life crystallized into news of a full – scale retreat to hearth and home. Detecting the start of an “opt-out revolution,” Lisa Belkin’s New York Times Magazine article told of accomplished professional women leaving high – powered jobs to stay home with their children.7 She predicted the coming of a new era—and raised quite a commotion among feminists, who criticized Belkin for, among other things, focusing on only a small segment of elite professionals who had married other elite professionals and could afford to stay home.8 A piece in the Boston Globe portrayed these mothers as the status symbol of a new privileged class.9 Several months later, in March 2004, the cover of Time showed a young child clinging to its mother’s leg alongside the headline, “The Case for Staying Home: Why More Young Moms Are Opting Out of the Rat Race.”10
Two years after Belkin’s initial report, talk of the “revolution” was still going strong. On January 1,2006, the op-ed page of the New York Times featured David Brooks looking back over the essays of the previous year and finding “an amazing number that dealt with domesticity. That’s because the deeper you get into economic or social problems—national competitiveness, poverty, school performance, incarceration—the more you realize the answers lie with good parenting and good homes.”11 And in March 2007, Joan Williams’s analysis of 119 news stories about women leaving the workforce found that three-fourths of these articles called attention to the emotional pulls drawing mothers back into domestic life while ignoring the pushes of workplace discrimination, inflexibility, and lack of adequate child care.12
The media emphasis on the new life awaiting mothers at home coincided with the birth of “maternal feminism,” part of a movement spearheaded by the Motherhood Project at the Institute for American Values.13 Calling for greater involvement of mothers in their children’s lives, the project’s director, Enola Aird, stated that “too many parents are not sufficiently attentive to the project of forming the character and morality of their children, losing touch with the spirit of ‘home training.’”14 Maternal feminism has not elicited universal enthusiasm. Expressing the concerns of earlier advocates of feminism,
Maureen Dowd voiced dismay at the dire consequences awaiting stay-at-home mothers. “If we flash forward to 2030,” she asked, “will we see all those young women who thought trying to Have It All was a pointless slog, now middle-aged and stranded in suburbia, popping Ativan, struggling with rebellious teenagers, deserted by husbands for younger babes, unable to get back into a work force they never tried to be part of?”15
Although news of a social upheaval is in the air, on the ground it is hard to say exactly what is happening. Despite the flood of essays celebrating or complaining about the resurgence of motherhood and domestic life, evidence that we are in the midst of an opt-out revolution is not entirely persuasive. Both the New York Times Magazine and Time stories are based mainly on evocative anecdotes. One of Belkin’s subjects, a Princeton graduate, observes, “I think some of us are swinging to a place we enjoy, and can admit we enjoy, the stereotypical role of female/mother/caregiver…. I think we were born with these feelings.”16 Women with law degrees from Princeton and MBAs from Harvard musing about the allure of staying home to change diapers may be an absorbing human-interest story, but in this case the plural of anecdote is not data.
Accounts of the opt-out revolution do cite some hard facts, however. For example, 22 percent of mothers with graduate degrees are at home with their children, 33 percent of women with MBAs do not work full time, and 26 percent of women approaching the most senior levels of management do not want to be promoted. Yet, cross-sectional data that provide a snapshot of facts at one point in time do not tell us whether there is a revolution afoot or the direction in which it might be headed. With information of this sort one needs a Ouija board to detect a social trend. To what extent has the proportion of mothers with college or graduate degrees who stay home with their children varied since 1970? Belkin notes that 57 percent of mothers from the Stanford University class of 1981 stayed home with their young children for at least a year in the first decade after graduation. There is no indication, however, whether that high percentage of at-home mothers has increased, decreased, or remained the same over time. And even if there has been an increase since 1970 in the percentage of women who stay home after obtaining college or graduate degrees from elite universities, one must bear in mind that the proportion of women with college or graduate degrees was significantly lower in 1970 than today.
Data on the work histories of more than ten thousand women in the 1976 entering class of thirty-four elite colleges and universities revealed that more than fifteen years after graduation almost 60 percent had never been out of work for more than six months at a time for reasons other than education. At the same time about 33 percent of the women graduates with children had out-of-work spells of more than two years, and 18 percent had out-of-work spells of more than five years. By comparison, only 3 percent of the male graduates had out-of-work spells of more than two years.17
These data can be read several ways. One could interpret the numbers to show that a healthy majority of women who graduated from elite institutions twenty-five years ago stayed the course with a continuous record of paid employment in their chosen careers. And one could go on to say that a substantial proportion of mothers who graduated from elite institutions during this period took a break from paid work for more than two years, and that many were unemployed for more than five years. At the very least, these figures suggest that at any time since 1980 a resourceful journalist could have found a sample of female graduates from elite colleges and universities who left work for some period to stay at home and raise their children. Indeed, such stories surfaced from time to time. But the question of whether the previous pattern of taking time out from paid employment has increased dramatically among women who graduated after 2000, as well as among those who never went to college, remains difficult to answer. Is an opt-out revolution upon us? On this matter I would concur with Claudia Goldin’s 2006 assessment that “the jury must remain out for at least another decade.”18
Having said that, however, there are some indications that although the winds of change may not have swept through the market, a slight breeze is in the air, and it may be gathering momentum. This inkling of change involves the leveling off of female labor-force participation in 1998, which turned into a slight decline of 0.8 percent between 2000 and 2004. Looking more closely we find that women ages twenty-five to fifty-four accounted for 69 percent of the female labor force in 2004. Among this age group, the decline in labor-force participation from 2000 to 2004 was two percentage points—much of it ascribed to the changing behavior of college-educated, married women with children under the age of three.19 Although this decline hardly qualifies as a headline-grabbing social revolution, such a drop over a four-year period is not trivial. If this rate of decline were to continue, within virtually one generation the percentage of women in the labor force would have fallen nearly to the level of the mid-1960s. That would indeed qualify as revolutionary.
Of course, the recent decline might be just a temporary blip or a signal that participation is leveling off—after all, the rate could not rise forever. Or it could be a harbinger of a readjustment in career patterns, one which introduces a season for childrearing into the course of work and family life. Rather than opting out of the labor force completely, those who have left work in recent years may be taking time out for motherhood and planning to reenter the workplace sometime down the line. Perhaps they are extending the length of time out that was taken by many of the women with children who graduated from elite colleges and universities in the early 1980s. The recent pattern of movement into the labor force shows that while the overall rate decreased between 2000 and 2004 for the large group of women between ages twenty-five and fifty-four, there was a 4 percent increase in participation among the smaller cohort of women over fifty-four years of age.
Within these broad categories of age, however, something else is going on. A more compelling trend is evident when we narrow our focus to the behavior of college-educated, married women with young children. In this group we find that the labor-force participation rate declined by about 8 percent between 1994 and 2004. (The 8 percent fall excludes working mothers on maternity leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, who are officially counted as employed.) This recent decline contrasts sharply with the experience of the 1980s, during which an increasing proportion of married women with young children joined the paid labor market.20 The shift in behavior among college-educated mothers not only deviates from the pattern of the previous decade but seems somewhat at odds with the rational calculation of economic gain, which encourages women to capitalize on their educational investment by going to work.
What accounts for this behavioral change among highly educated young women, who consciously invested in years of education, largely to increase their human capital in preparation for well-paid employment? Some might say that these women could well afford to leave work because they were more likely to have high-earning husbands than women without advanced educations. But this was also true in the 1980s, when labor-force participation among women with the same family and educational characteristics increased markedly. Another possible explanation for the decline from 1994 to 2004 could be that changes in wages, market opportunities, or family income reduced the women’s commitment to the labor market. For example, college-educated mothers might have been dissuaded from working if their weekly earnings declined after 1994 or if their husband’s earnings increased at a higher rate than in the 1980s. But neither of these changes occurred.21 Nor was there an increase in overt discrimination or other barriers that might have inhibited labor-force participation. After examining the evidence on a range of alternative explanations, Katherine Bradbury and Jane Katz found that the decline in paid employment might reflect changing social norms, particularly during an era when traditional gender roles are in flux.22
A fraction of the drop in women entering the labor market could be attributed to slightly higher unemployment in 2004. In another study, Julie Hotchkiss carefully estimated the impact of changes in unemployment rates along with other measurable characteristics such as educational attainment, marriage, childbearing, race, and income. She concluded that these factors, which economists usually rely upon, do not fully explain the declining labor-force participation of women between 2000 and 2004.23 As with Bradbury and Katz, her explanation falls to more ethereal social properties—“unobservable” norms and values—which are harder to document and quantify than demographic traits. Despite this intangible quality, norms and values have a very real influence on human affairs, which becomes most evident in periods of change.
Changes in social norms involve shifts in shared expectations about acceptable and desirable behavior. These expectations are learned, usually through socialization in childhood;
they may change over time—often slowly—but how this change comes about is not entirely understood. Norms governing family life in the 1930s, for example, prescribed that wives stay at home to care for children and elderly relatives. This widespread expectation regarding the role of motherhood was endorsed by the 1935 Social Security legislation, not only through the formation of ADC but also through the provision of a dependents’ benefit. Under this benefit, nonworking spouses qualified for a pension payment equal to 50 percent of the primary benefit earned by the retired wage earner. But the expectations of motherhood changed as women entered the labor force en masse. Today the dependents’ benefit is a source of considerable inequity. After paying social security taxes, many working wives end up qualifying for the same pension as the dependents’ benefit received by stay-at-home mothers—and sometimes their pensions are even lower than the dependents’ benefit of stay-at-home mothers.24
Changes in social values involve a modification of the shared beliefs that people hold dear to their conceptions of well-being and the good life—that is, the level of importance attributed to material wealth, status, emotional satisfaction, family duty, professional achievement, social relationships, liberty, education, and individual happiness. Anthony Trollope’s “The Lady of Launay” conveys the world of upper-class Victorian values, wherein the import of family duty prevails over individual happiness. In the story, the Lady ponders what to do about the untoward romance between her ward, Bessy, and her son, Philip: “Of course she wanted them all to be happy. But happiness was to her thinking of much less importance than her duty; and at the present moment her duty and Bessy’s duty and Philip’s duty were so momentous that no idea of happiness ought to be considered in the matter.”25 The duty to which the Lady refers is her obligation to advance the wealth and social position of the house of Launay by arranging a more advantageous marriage for her son. Today, although duty to family is still believed to be a good thing, modern divorce rates suggest that it is no longer as fervently valued as in the Lady of Launay’s time. As with normative expectations about proper behavior, social beliefs about what is good and important in life are learned, mostly in childhood. Some social values are extremely durable; others change over time—and the dynamics of change are ambiguous.
Efforts to explain the recent decline in women’s labor – force participation as a response to changing opportunities and incentives such as rising unemployment rates, increases in nonwage income (for example, spouse’s income or investment earnings), declining wages, and rising levels of educational achievement present a logical set of material reasons for how people decide to lead their lives. These reasons are more agreeable to policy makers than explanations that point to changing norms and values. It is easier to design policies that might affect, for example, wages and education. By contrast, norms and values, while not immune to policy incentives, are less predictable, and therefore less easy to control. Indeed, changes in norms and values sometimes seem to come out of the air, particularly in regard to expected behavior in relations between men and women. For example, as a young man growing up in the 1950s, I was taught that on entering a building or store it was proper to hold the door open for women. By the late 1960s that gentle behavior was as likely as not to ignite the ire of many women, who were marching to a different beat than their mothers. Today, holding the door open appears to have become more acceptable, or at least less of a faux pas.26 Similarly, in the 1950s men were expected to foot the tab for dinner.
By the 1960s women were demanding to pay their share of the bill. Today, women continue to reach for their purse, but if a man readily accepts a woman’s offer to pay, that’s probably their last dinner together!
Prior to the 1970s it was customary for a woman to assume her husband’s surname upon marriage. Between the 1970s and 1990 there was a significant deviation from this custom as increasing proportions of women, particularly college graduates, retained their surnames upon marriage. During this period the age at which women first married increased, as did their years of education and participation in the labor force—and so did divorce rates. By marrying later and investing more time in education and careers, women accumulated social capital under their maiden names, which they might have been reluctant to forfeit—particularly with the probability of marriage ending in divorce rising to around 50 percent by 1990. Since the 1990s, however, the trend toward keeping one’s family name appears to have reversed. Data based on Massachusetts birth records suggest that the fraction of female college graduates who retained their surnames declined from 23 percent in 1990 to 17 percent in 2000. A similarly sharp reduction was found between women graduates in the Harvard class of 1980 who were married by 1990 and those in the class of 1990 who were married by 2000.27 The faint drift toward more traditional customs might be seen as part of an emerging normative revision, which includes the leveling off and slight decline in labor-force participation among women.
Attributing the decline in labor-force participation to changing norms and values puts the issue in a realm of social life that is less exact than wages and levels of education. Life’s exactitude is obvious, as G. K. Chesterton observed, “but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.” Although normative shifts tend to be clearly recognized after the fact, they are notoriously difficult to pinpoint in the early stages. At this juncture it is not yet clear whether the changes registered between 1994 and 2004 reflect a substantial shift in the timing of women’s breaks from paid employment or a significant decrease in women’s cumulative lifetime participation in the labor market. For Bradbury and Katz, the conspicuous fall in the participation rate of highly educated mothers remains a puzzling development.28 And how this development might apply to broader adjustments in motherhood and family life in the late 1990s is also uncertain. Reviewing some of the shortterm changes, Barbara Whitehead and David Popenoe find the best that can be said is that many of the trends “toward a weakening of family structure in the past few decades have slowed dramatically, and in some cases leveled off"29
Will the rate of women’s labor-force participation begin to climb again after cooling off for a few years? Flatten out at a new level of equilibrium? Continue to decline? Develop an alternative pattern of distribution among different age groups? Or be reshaped by an explosion of part-time work and telecommuting? And how will this affect motherhood and family life? The next generation will tell what wildness lies in wait.