Women Flood the Job Market
IF YOU asked a little girl a generation ago what she wanted to be when she grew up, she may have remarked: “A mommy.” Today, in the United States, if you asked the same question, the answer more likely might be: “The president,” or, “An astronaut and a mommy.”
It used to be that women with young children and who worked at a secular job were either pitied or criticized. But there has been such a shift in attitudes that more and more women now apologize if they are “just a housewife.”
Over 47 percent of all adult women in the United States now work outside the home, and the numbers are rising rapidly. Women account for about 40 percent of the U.S. labor force. In 1976 alone, a large new group of 1.5 million women went out and found a job.
This flood of women into the job market has surprised economists and Labor Department forecasters. They have called it “extraordinary,” and “the single most outstanding phenomenon of our century.” It was not expected that women would account for over 40 percent of the labor force, at least not until 1985.
It is similar in other countries. In Belgium, a Ministry of Health official blamed the reported increase of lice, fleas and cockroaches on women working outside the home. “Man and wife now more often go to work together in the morning,” he said, “and are often too tired to start cleaning up the house when they get back in the evening.”
In Israel, women serve as army drill instructors. “It increases the men’s motivation,” one explains, for “when I complete a two-mile run at the head of my platoon, no one drops out.”
What is surprising U.S. observers is not just the numbers of women suddenly desiring to work, but the ages of the women. In the last two years especially, the most striking increases have been among women between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four, the age group that traditionally stays home to raise their families. Many of these women are choosing to work, not because they don’t have husbands who support them, but because they prefer working outside the home “to just being a housewife.”
A Swinging Pendulum
Recent patterns of women in the job market have been like a swinging pendulum. Prior to World War I, women seldom worked outside the home, and then generally only in jobs considered suitable for women. Even typing and secretarial work was viewed as strictly a man’s job until the late 1880’s. But the labor needs of World War I brought women into the marketplace in force. Then, in the economic crash of 1929, women were the first to be fired in the wave of unemployment that swept the nation.
World War II, even more dramatically, brought women into the nation’s labor force in record numbers. They did all kinds of work formerly considered fit for men only, producing much of the war matériels. “Rosie the Riveter” became a national heroine of the day. But with peacetime, large numbers of women again returned to the home, as defense plants shut down and women were fired to make room for millions of returning servicemen.
Many women were glad to return home, and the spirit of the country strongly shifted away from encouraging secular careers for women. The wartime period of record numbers of workingwomen—some 37 percent of all women—was replaced by the highest marriage and birth rate in the twentieth century. But beginning around 1950, the number of workingwomen began to rise again, and by 1962 it was back up to 36 percent, just short of the record World War II level; and now, at over 47 percent, it continues to soar.
This has raised a hotly debated question: Where do women belong? In the home? On a job? Or both? But before considering this, let us examine reasons why women are entering the job market in such numbers.
[Box on page 3]
Child-development expert Urie Bronfenbrenner recently reported: “Over 50 percent of women with school-aged children are now employed. So are over one-third of those with children under six. In fact, one-third of women with children under three are working.”—“Psychology Today,” May 1977.