Women, Your Time Has Come (To Drop Out of the Workforce)


Women are dropping out of the workforce at the highest rate since the 1970s, says a New York Times article:

After moving into virtually every occupation, women are being afflicted on a large scale by the same troubles as men: downturns, layoffs, outsourcing, stagnant wages or the discouraging prospect of an outright pay cut. And they are responding as men have, by dropping out or disappearing for awhile.

The proportion of women holding jobs in their prime working years, 25 to 54, peaked at 74.9 percent in early 2000 as the technology investment bubble was about to burst. Eight years later, in June, it was 72.7 percent, a seemingly small decline, but those 2.2 percentage points erase more than 12 years of gains for women. Four million more in their prime years would be employed today if the old pattern had prevailed through the expansion now ending.

Journalist Louis Uchitelle cites the example of a 48-year-old woman named Ms. Samson, who never returned to the workforce after being laid off from a factory job that paid around $20 per hour:

She could be working. Jobs that pay $8 or $9 an hour are easy enough to land, she says. But she resists going back to work at less than half her old wage. Ms. Samson knows she will have to get another job at some point. So Ms. Samson, now receiving unemployment benefits, is going to college full time — leaving the work force for more than two years — hoping that a bachelor’s degree will enable her to earn at least her old wage of $20 an hour.

This struck me as one of those articles that doesn’t intrinsically contain much new information, but sparks discussion on the topic of women and the economy. Therein lies its value.

Crucial points to add:

Going on leave isn’t always voluntary for women.

–If childcare costs eat up a woman’s entire salary, there’s no ROI for her job. She might as well quit.
–Commuting is a big consideration for mothers. What’s the point of working if you’re gone 12 hours a day, barely see your kid, and barely make money because of skyrocketing gas costs?
–Few jobs these days seem to offer benefits. Benefits are a big job consideration for many women.
–Quite a few older women (55+) find it hard, if not impossible, to get rehired after dropping out of the workforce or changing jobs.

This is a systemic problem for Americans of both genders.
–Outsourcing, skyrocketing health care costs, and wage stagnation do not a good career make.
–The economy is changing rapidly, requiring workers to adapt. They primarily do this through education. Learning new skills, then, is a necessity rather than a luxury.

And, finally–the article fails to cover the plight of single women, who often have no choice but to work.

That said, I have no idea what this means for equality, if anything. It merely appears to be another sad economic fact…

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  • Great post Drea-

    I think both sexes are opting to “drop out” of the homogenized workforce. For example, my wife and I both are self-employed and work from home. Our daughter (who is three) enjoys having her parents around all the time. But this was a lifestyle choice we decided on 15 years ago. We knew that at least my Wife would stay home with kids and planned accordingly. It was only by downsizing that I got tired of the corp. B.S. and decided to start my own company. Sorry, I have to go watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with my daughter….for the 5th time this week :)

  • I think there is more to the statistics that it might first appear. I cannot find the article, but I read a while ago that women are not as motivated anymore to be the superstar mom who works full time, raises the family and tries to hold together her marriage all at the same time. In other words, women broke through the ‘glass ceiling’ and realized that doing it all just wasn’t all that fun. Instead, more women would prefer to work part-time or in a flexible position where they can still achieve their career aspirations, but still raise/enjoy their family in a more relaxed state. I am a prime example, I have my ph.d. and quit my job at the university in order to take care of my young children. I do plan on returning eventually and in the meantime am helping out with our family business on a part-time basis.

  • Drea

    Robert and Stephanie–I agree with you both on the flexibility issue. I myself don’t have any kids, but chose to become self-employed because a) working in Corporate America had a very acid effect on my will to live, b) I’m able to get more done, c) I choose projects I love, and d) I make more money (!). I think more and more people, women and men alike, are realizing that the real payoffs are often outside of the office. Even the good ol’ money.

    Robert–Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? I think your expertise warrants a blog post ;).

  • Drea,another great post.

    I’m one of the statistics. I worked in professioanal and management positions (including senior management) in corporate America for many years . . . and dropped out. I wrote a book, started businesses, and am now completely unsuitable for a management position in corporate America. Once you have gone over the wall, there is no going back for some of us! Have I yet made the kind of money I made in my corporate management roles? Not yet. How else does it compare? From a quality of life standpoint, health standpoint, relationship standpoint, and pretty much every other standpoint, life is light years ahead for me.

  • Drea


    Amen to that! I would say that writing a book and starting a business give you ten times higher marks on the Life Accomplishment list than staying in corp. America would have. And what kind of price can you put on quality of life? Intact health=at least $10 million, I’d say. A good relationship is worth the same amount as 20 years’ worth of bar tabs, cover charges, match.com fees, couples therapy fees, individual therapy fees, and pints of chocolate and wine during recovery phases. Who am I kidding? It’s worth far more than that.

    And if these things can improve through self-employment, that improvement is worth a LOT…