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The Impact of Women Leaving The Work Force

The New York Times reports today that due to the weak economy, there are now “more young women in school than in the work force.” This is the first time women in school have outnumbered women in the work force in three decades. How does this development fit in the longer history of women’s entry into both higher education and the labor market?

The leading research on this question comes from Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who has argued that “women’s increased involvement in the economy was the most significant change in labor markets during the past century.” In fact, Goldin calls the change a “quiet revolution.” And the recent exodus of women from the work force doesn’t necessarily mean that trend has reversed: After all, Goldin has also noted that during the mid-twentieth century, “as more women majored in career-oriented subjects and entered professional and advanced degree programs,” their participation in the labor force skyrocketed: “Participation rates among young women (under 35 years) with college degrees or more show the greatest increase for women born during the 1940s. Whereas rates for young college-educated women born in the 1930s were around 50 percent, participation rose to 80 percent for women born in 1950.” In contrast, among women today aged 16-24, just under 55 percent are in the labor force. They may be leaving the labor force in the short term, but by pursuing education they are preparing for a return—suggesting that recent trends are no sign of the end of the quiet revolution.