In the Meantime: The Other Revolution
The past may hold some keys to the future, but in i960 there was little inkling that within one generation the majority of women with children would be actively engaged in the labor force—Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique had yet to appear. There was even less of a clue that the U. S. fertility rate would decline by more than one-third, from 3.4 to 2.02 (just below the replacement rate of 2.1). Indeed, the oft-expressed public concern was that the United States would be swamped by overpopulation, a fear fanned by Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb, which predicted that major food shortages would lead to the starvation of 65 million Americans by 1989.30
At the moment, predictions of an opt-out revolution in the next generation lean on thin data and truncated trend lines. Despite the drop in labor-force participation among women with young children between 2000 and 2004, Heather Boushey contends that when the time frame is extended we find that mothers with high school or college degrees in 2004 were less likely to leave the labor market because of their children than those in 1984.31 Indeed, viewed in a broader context, the changing patterns of employment reveal a more compelling story, one that involves long-term trends of a steady increase in women’s labor-force participation alongside an equally steady decline in the percentage of men in the labor force.
Not only has the percentage of women joining the labor force climbed since the previous generation, but they are entering with more powerful credentials. Compared with the 1970s, a substantially larger percentage of women today are attending graduate school and earning high-status professional degrees. Between 1970 and 2002 the proportion of medical degrees awarded to women increased by almost 529 percent; law, 888 percent; business, more than 1,000 percent; and dentistry, 4,277 percent.32 These are impressive advances, even when we consider that relatively modest numerical gains yield sizable changes in percentage points when starting from a low base. If one-third of all women receiving advanced degrees today were to opt out of their professions, the remaining two-thirds would still represent a noteworthy increase in women’s employment in these areas over the past three decades.
As women have entered the labor force with more educational preparation, they have increasingly expressed a bent for entrepreneurial activity. Between 1997 and 2004 the number of companies owned by women climbed by 20 percent, or twice the 10 percent growth rate in the total number of U. S. businesses. Similar to most businesses, the vast majority of women-owned businesses were single-person enterprises.33 Women’s earnings have also risen in recent years. In 33 percent of the families with working wives, women earned more than their husbands in 2004—up from 24 percent in 1987.34
From a longitudinal perspective, the women currently opting out of jobs and professional careers to stay home with their children are at the margins of a profound lifestyle trend that has extended over the past several decades—a development deftly portrayed, some might say celebrated, in the media. After a six year run, the popular HBO series Sex and the City ended in 2004 with what was widely reported as a happy ending. Each of the four heroines, in their late thirties and early forties, had found love and commitment while pursuing gratifying careers. The series finale was a paean to love and individual fulfillment. But as for family life, these four vibrant, successful women approaching the terminus of their childbearing years ended up with only two marriages and one child between them. As a mirror of society, the media shift from kids bouncing off the walls in The Brady Bunch to the 0.25 fertility rate in Sex and the City several decades later clearly reflects the cultural and demographic trends during this period. Sex and the City was followed by Desperate Housewives, a popular network series whose title signifies its social commentary on the dark lives of stay-at-home mothers on Wisteria Lane.
In 2002, almost one in five women in their early forties were childless, close to double the proportion of childless women in 1976. Also during that quarter century the proportion of women having three or more children fell by 50 percent. Another way of viewing this substantial decline in childbearing is to consider that in 1976 the ratio of women ages forty to forty-four with at least three children to those who were childless was about six to one; by 2002 the ratio was less than two to one.35 Over the same period the proportion of women having only one child by their early forties nearly doubled. Compared to the relatively few Ivy League law graduates who have traded the bar for rocking the cradle, the widespread abdication of motherhood poses an alternative question: Who is opting out of what? Women are increasingly having fewer children, and a growing proportion of women are choosing not to have any children at all. Those who do have children, Andrew Hacker points out, “are taking a new approach to motherhood. In particular, most are disinclined to make caring for their children their primary occupation.”36
The decline in fertility and the increase in childlessness over just several decades have various implications that may or may not be seen as problematic, depending on one’s perspective. From any angle, however, two issues immediately come to the fore. The first has to do with the aging of the population, which is in part a function of relatively low birthrates coupled with increasing longevity. This has created a difficulty—some would say a looming crisis—in regard to sustaining the integrity of old age pensions in the United States and throughout the advanced industrialized nations. Moreover, an aging population shrinks public interest in supporting the community infrastructure of schools, parks, and public services, which aid in the task of raising children.37
The second issue concerns the varying characteristics of people with different fertility rates, which have conspicuous political and cultural implications. Those having two or more children tend to be less educated, more religious, and more traditionally oriented than people with fewer than two children—and they are more likely to stand politically toward the right. In the 2004 election, George Bush took twenty-five of the twenty-six states with the highest white fertility rates, while John Kerry took the states that were least prolific.38 Going beyond presidential elections, Phillip Longman suggests that the different fertility rates between secular individualists and religious conservatives augur a vast cultural transformation. He anticipates a resurgence of patriarchy in modern societies, which are increasingly populated by families with traditional religious values. In France, for example, although less than 33 percent of women born in the early 1960s have three or more children, “this distinct minority of French women (most of them presumably practicing Catholics and Muslims) produced more than 50 percent of all children born to their generation."39
Whether or not one perceives in the changing structure of family life an acute problem for old age security, a boon to the political right, or a boost to patriarchy, the demographic shift is a serious matter. Ben Wattenberg’s warning about population decline in 1987 did not stir much public debate.40 More recently, scholars and demographers, of course, have been aware of the historic decline in fertility and the aging of the population.41 It is curious, however, that an 80 percent jump in childlessness in one generation went relatively unnoticed in the public arena compared to the media blitz accorded the 2 percent decline in women’s labor-force participation. One might take this as a sign of the diminished value of motherhood in the early years of the twenty-first century. The implicit message is that work for pay is far more important than producing and caring for children—at least in the minds
of many media personalities responsible for highlighting social trends.
The increasing rate of childlessness is not unique to the United States. The proportions of childless women above the age of forty in Britain, Austria, Switzerland, and Sweden are about the same as that in the United States.42 Family size is shrinking amid declining fertility rates in the advanced industrial democracies. In the Netherlands, where the average age of firsttime mothers has climbed to 29.6, demographers predict that 20 percent of the Dutch women born in 1985 will remain childless.43 In Germany more than 25 percent of the women born in 1965 are estimated to be childless.44 Although the U. S. fertility rate fell from 2.48 in 1970 to 2.06 in 2000, it remains higher than that of all European Union countries, among which Italy and Spain have the lowest birthrates at about I.3.45 Norway, with one of the highest fertility rates in Europe (1.8), is close to the United States.46
In addition to women having fewer children, mothers are increasingly leaving the daily care of their preschool children to other people. Between 1991 and 2001 the proportion of three-to – five-year-old children supervised by caregivers other than their parents increased from 69 to 74 percent.47 A significant number of these children spent the better part of their days in out – of-home care. According to estimates from the Urban Institute, 41 percent of all children under five years of age whose mothers are employed are in day care for thirty-five hours a week or more. (The figure rises to 52 percent for those whose mothers work full-time.)48 European scholars have assigned this process the cumbrous label of “defamilialization,” thereby shrouding the transfer of maternal childcare from the home to the public creche and private day-care provider in a gender – neutral veil.49
In addition to concealing the role of motherhood as the linchpin of family life, the veil of defamilialization obscures emerging social pressures that diminish the family’s station as an institution that shelters the individual from both the state and the market. As the functions of household production and social care are surrendered to the market and the state, family members come to depend less on hearth and kin and more on external sources for their personal security and well-being. Ultimately, this reliance on the state and the market erodes the bonds of family life, leaving its members as independent actors who are free to seek their private pleasures and are constrained mainly by obligations to serve the market (as workers and consumers) and the state (as taxpayers and public employees). The coming of a new social order tends to be read from different points of view.50 Where traditionalists see a moral decline into selfish individualism, deficient parenting, and social instability, postmodernists witness the liberation of human relations, allowing what Anthony Giddens calls “pure relationships” to flower unfettered from established conventions of habit and duty.51 To stem the decline of child-centered family life would require, as James Q. Wilson puts it, “reversing the greatest accomplishment of the West: human emancipation.”52
Whether or not a new social order is really in the making, the dramatic increase in childlessness—from one in ten to almost one in five women—and the rise in out-of-home care for young children does qualify as some sort of a social revolution. If women have been “opting out” of anything, the revolt against motherhood appears to be more widespread than the recent decline in labor-force participation. Still, the ebb in labor-force participation should not be dismissed too readily, as it might be the start of a sea change that ultimately reverses the tide.
Talk of a social revolution conveys a sense of fundamental change. It seems to promise a new awakening that is compelling women to substitute one type of life for another. Claims of an opt-out revolution from motherhood to the labor market or the other way around imply that all women pretty much want the same thing—whatever that may be—when it comes to career and family. Indeed, it may have looked that way in earlier times. Although the question of what women want has plagued men for ages, it became a serious matter for women only in modern times in the advanced industrial societies. Before the contraceptive revolution of the mid-1960s, biology may not have been destiny, but it certainly contributed to the childbearing fate of women who engaged in sexual activity. Up until 1965, in fact, it was illegal in Connecticut to provide information and medical advice on the use of contraceptives to married people.53 In addition, most women needed men for their economic survival before the equal opportunity movement in the 1960s, which opened access to virtually all careers. Moreover, the expansion of white-collar jobs and jobs for secondary earners after the 1960s presented women with a viable range of employment alternatives to traditional domestic life. Taken together, these advances in contraceptive technology and civil rights along with changes in the labor market have transformed women’s opportunities to control and shape their personal lives.54