College-educated wives dropping out of the workforce

by Grace

College-educated wives married to similarly educated husbands are leaving the workforce in increasing numbers, creating a trend that may hinder an already weak economic recovery.  But will young men’s lower college graduation rates reverse this trend?

… between 1993 and 2006, there was a decline in the workforce of 0.1 percent a year on average in the number of college-educated women, with similarly educated spouses.

That contrasts with growth of 2.4 percent a year between 1976 and 1992.

The result: the labor force in 2008 had 1.64 million fewer such women than if the growth rate had kept up its earlier trend, slightly more than 1 percent of the total workforce in that year….

May have a negative effect on economic growth

Stefania Albanesi, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and one of the study’s authors, said the loss may hurt economic growth at a time when the nation can ill afford to have highly skilled workers on the sidelines….

Dropping out of the workforce is not just for the super-wealthy, and babies are not the reason these women are staying home.

But the trend is not limited to top earners. It has been detected among households earning around $80,000 per year….

… it’s not the tug of looking after young children that makes most educated women give up their career.

“These women usually give up their jobs when their children are school-age and not babies any more,” Albanesi said.

This doesn’t surprise me.  I know I’m not the only mom who found that juggling babies and work was a lot easer than caring for older, school-aged children while working full-time.  As they grow older, the logistical, disciplinary, and emotional needs of children can become more complicated.  For me, out-sourcing childcare for my pre-teens proved more challenging than finding a good caregiver for my babies.

Will the more women than men graduating from college, will this trend be affected?

Educational homogamy, the tendency to marry someone of the same educational level, is a decades-long pattern particularly strong among college graduates.  With the declining “supply” of men who are marriage material for educated women, what will happen?  Will female college graduates change their behavior and join their less-educated sisters in the growing trend of having children outside of marriage?  Or maybe they will begin to marry down in greater numbers.  In this case, quitting work to care for children may not be such a good option for wives out-earning their husbands, and we may see more men staying home to care for children.  That would be a significant shift in traditional gender roles, with unpredictable effects on families.

Add in the higher education bubble to these possible scenarios and anyone’s prediction about the next 30 years starts to look very fuzzy.  All I can think to do is advise my children to be ready for anything and be careful what you wish for.

7 Comments to “College-educated wives dropping out of the workforce”

  1. I’m interested in hearing abut the stay-at-home dad trend, too! I haven’t run across that trend, not in my readings nor in my personal life. Well, I have recently read about high-powered business women whose husbands dropped out and took over the main responsibility for childcare, but I thought they were the exceptions.


  2. I know two older stay-at-home dads with professional wives pretty well. One turned out to have a mental illness and anger problems and his wife divorced him (he really struggled with their toddler). They had originally planned to homeschool. The second SAHD had to quit his job because of a physical disability (seizures) and so he devoted himself to managing a daughter’s academics and extracurriculars. The mom was very busy and the daughter really missed having her mom around to do girl stuff like go shopping. The daughter eventually had a lot of issues, but who knows whether things would have turned out differently with a SAHM instead of a SAHD.

    I think dads-with-problems are more typical of an older generation of stay-at-home dads. The current crop may be more average, especially with the recession.


  3. SAHMs have their problems, too, of course. In the advice columns and forums, the depressed housewife turns up pretty frequently–she’s home with the kids all the time and she shuts down and goes into screensaver mode.


  4. I know 5 or 6 women who have SAH husbands. A doctor, a lawyer, a bioinformatics researcher, a research audiologist, and someone else I am blanking on right now. It is has gotten so common in academia that whenever I meet a woman with kids who is on the tenure track, I just assume she has a SAH husband, much as I assume that the tenure track dads have wives at home. But it isn’t just high powered women. My husband’s nephew is a SAH dad. His wife is a high school teacher (and no, she does not make the kind of money they make here in our area!)


  5. Oh, the other friend with a SAH dad husband owns a maternity clothing store. Her husband sounds flaky though. The other SAH dads that I know are all quite stable and do it because they want to.


  6. “whenever I meet a woman with kids who is on the tenure track, I just assume she has a SAH husband,”

    Whenever I meet a woman with kids who is on any “high-power” career track, I also assume that. Or, a grandma or other relative who is dedicated to the kids.


  7. Well, these anecdotes may be the a sign of things to come, but I don’t think it’s a trend yet. But with the lower college graduation rates for men, it could happen.

    Then there’s this: “324,000 Women Dropped Out of Labor Force in Last Two Months–As Number of Women Not in Labor Force Hits Historic High”


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