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Why Aren’t Unmarried Women Working?

The question isn't as head-scratching as many make it out to be


Women & DiversityIn the good ol’ world of gender stereotypes, one clear-cut distinction is common: Men are simple creatures, while women are not just mysterious, but complicated.

Regardless of whether this is an accurate dichotomy, it is, at first glance, surprisingly fitting for a seemingly straightforward statistic: employment.


Let’s start with the guys, where things can be summed up in one (albeit made-up) word: “man-cession.”

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Labor participation for males has been on a downward trend for some time now, but it was exasperated by the Great Recession to the point that it actually hit yet another an all-time low last month.

The decline first started because women have increasingly joined the work force in the past half-century. And that doesn’t just mean they’re taking jobs from men. Family structures have also shifted as a result, allowing men to sometimes retire earlier or not work at all.

More recently, the aging of baby boomers has taken a toll on labor participation as well. Plus, many of those graying males now instead rely on non-labor income such as Social Security and disability payments.

And for the cherry on top, male-dominated industries like construction were harder hit during the downturn. That was easy. Now for the ladies, where things start to get a little messy.

“Wo … man-cession?”

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Labor participation for women climbed for decades, but, of course, fell during the Great Recession. Now, though, a recent economic paper by Robert Moffitt of Johns Hopkins University has people scratching their heads because it shows that female employment actually started slowing and reversing before the crisis — around 2000.

Things got even more complicated when Moffitt discovered that the drop was even more significant for unmarried women. Between 1999 and 2007, employment for single women fell nearly 10 times as much as it did for married ones. So, the still-debated opt-out revolution (well-educated, married women choosing to stay at home with their kids) couldn’t explain away the trend.

Plus, factors like outside income and family structure didn’t give a straightforward answer to the riddle like they did for men.

One article reporting Moffitt’s findings — touting the alarming headline “All the Single Ladies Are … Unemployed” — spent paragraphs incredulously repeating his statistics and positing befuddled follow-up questions to the great mystery. And Moffitt himself called for more research on the subject.

I agree that digging deeper is a good idea. But this reality isn’t as much of an unsolved mystery as it is being made out to be. Several possible factors are at work here:

Unraveling the Mystery

To start, we can’t forget that the pre-recession decline for all women still can be explained at least in part by those same aging boomers who have stopped working. And while the opt-out revolution can’t explain the fall for single women, that doesn’t mean it didn’t play a role in the overall trend.

But let’s focus on the many mystifying bachelorettes who supposedly just can’t find jobs. First of all, even with the average age of marriage rising, most single ladies are still relatively young (usually under 26). Thus, they are often, and increasingly, still in school — and not looking for jobs.

This affects women more than men because they dominate higher education more and more (women make up around 60% of undergrads) and increasingly continue their education beyond a bachelor’s degree (between 2000 and 2010, the number of male full-time postbaccalaureate students increased by 38%, versus a 62% increase for females).

Anecdotally, countless girls I know plan to hold off on marriage until they are finished school and on their own two feet, so sometimes the fact that these “unemployed” women are also “unmarried” is actually by design.

The aforementioned article, though, still seemed hung up on the whole opt-out revolution — and the fact that it couldn’t fully explain Moffitt’s data.

“Even if unmarried moms were able to opt out without a partner’s income to rely on,” the article said, “that wouldn’t explain the employment drop — it was especially pronounced among women without kids. Employment among childless single women dropped by 3.5% between 1999 and 2007 — among single moms, it dropped just 0.4%.”

This point also isn’t all that surprising. Women without kids can drop out of the work force to continue going to school because they don’t have to provide for the expensive bundles of joy that are children. Many single moms, on the other hand, probably kept working because they had to — likely a contributing factor to why 50% of single moms don’t even finish high school, much less make it to college or beyond.

In fact, a similar sense of responsibility could also keep married women in the work force, whether or not they are mothers. Yes, some are able to opt out ­down the line, but many find work a necessity when the honeymoon ends and mortgage payments and/or a family begin.

Plus, marriage makes the possibility of going back to or continuing with school — of adding expenses or sacrificing income — a joint decision; it doesn’t affect only the woman in question. Unmarried women, logically, are likelier to have just themselves to think about.

For the icing on the unmarried-falling-labor-participation cake, we also have another surprising trend — and one that’s not about the young’uns. The number of boomers getting divorced at older ages has seen a dramatic rise.

In 1999, only 1 in 10 people age 50 or older got divorced. By 2009, that had jumped to 1 in 4. These women often are done working, and thus help bulk up the number of nonworkers in that “unmarried” category.

Bottom Line

All in all, the trend doesn’t seem all that befuddling. And while the rationale behind the male workforce decline may seem simple now that someone ironed out and explained the many wrinkles in the statistics, the exact same thing can be done for women as well.

Article printed from InvestorPlace Media,

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