The Tidal Wave Of Working Women Recedes A Bit

Among the victims of the recession, you can count the remarkable postwar surge of American women into the job market. For decades, the proportion of women in the labor force--those either working or seeking work--rose steadily year after year. But in 1991, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this trend was interrupted for the first time since 1962--as women's participation rate fell from 57.5% to 57.3%.

The interruption is somewhat puzzling. Poor job prospects engendered by the recession seem to have affected women 25 years and older, since their labor-force participation rate hit a high in the first half of 1990 and then fell after the downturn began. Yet, as the BLS notes, previous recessions failed to halt the rise in the proportion of women in the active work force.

Another piece of the puzzle is a continuing decline in the participation rate of women aged 16 to 24, which began in 1988. The BLS admits it doesn't understand the reasons for this drop, which now exceeds three percentage points. One factor may be a recent rise in the number of women having babies, even though an increasing proportion of new mothers are over 30.

In short, several socioeconomic trends, not all of them apparent, seem to lie behind the interruption in the movement of women into the work force. And while the BLS had expected this trend to slow sharply in the 1990s, it now thinks future rises could be smaller and more uncertain than it anticipated.

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