The Coming Pressure on Professional Women
If there’s one thing economists tend to agree on, it’s the benefits of free movement of labor. Lowering barriers to immigration has the power to add up to $90 trillion a year to the global economy, doubling global gross domestic product and dwarfing the impact of reducing barriers to trade and capital flows. Not only does immigration boost the economy, it has also helped empower professional women in the U.K. and U.S. economies over the last 50 years.
The entry of professional women into the labor market has been supported by an army of low-paid -- often immigrant -- domestic helpers. According to sociologist Lynn Prince Cooke, the upside of the higher income inequality in the U.S. and U.K. economies compared with continental Europe has been the availability of low-cost labor to which educated women have been able to subcontract out their traditional domestic duties, from cleaning and childcare to preparing meals and looking after the elderly. At the end of the day, where would “power couples” be without the low-paid, often female and immigrant, labor on which they depend?
In the U.S., educated women have benefited from the availability of cheap unskilled immigrant workers from Latin America, while those in the U.K. have benefited from Eastern European labor -- precisely the immigrant labor that voters and governments have on their radar. Reduced immigration will leave us with a choice: Either life will be more difficult for professional women, or professional men will have to do more around the home.
Meanwhile, countries that need immigrants to make up for declining fertility rates among natives will find this source unavailable. Fertility in the U.S. and U.K. has fallen below the replacement ratio of 2.1 and the proportion of women with no children has increased significantly. According to the U.K. Office for National Statistics, of the women born in 1940, nine out of 10 went on to have children. By 1967, double the number of women were not having children (one in five) and, if trends continue, estimates suggest that by 2018, a quarter of middle-aged women will be childless. In the U.S., and according to the Census Bureau’s 2014 census, 28.9 percent of women aged 30 to 34 have no children.
There have been various recent policy initiatives aimed at encouraging Western women to have more babies. They include cash inducements (as offered in Singapore and Turkey), subsidized child care (popular in Scandinavia and increasingly so in the U.K.), additional paid leave and even national fertility-boosting songs and, in Russia, an annual day earmarked for baby-making.
Immigration, and especially the availability of domestic help and childcare options, allows Western women to make a choice about their fertility without excessive pressure from government. If immigration barriers go up, there’s a real risk such pressure will increase rather than decrease. In a recent paper, the authors argue that women’s access to birth control has contributed to over-saving and secular stagnation. It’s not such a stretch to imagine that policy-makers, faced with challenging demographics and the need to boost growth, would seek to nudge more women into parenthood.
Attempts to restrict immigration in the era of Brexit and Trump will not only damage the economy, they could restrict the lives of professional women. If that happens, the male population will find itself having to pick up some of the slack -- and 2017 might not be a year of marital bliss.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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