Why there¢â¬â¢s no going back to the ¢â¬â¢50s

Balancing Work and Family, the recent report from the House of Reps Standing Committee on Family and Human Services contains a version of one of my favourite pictures. (I’ve posted my own version below the fold.)

The figure shows how labour force participation has changed for successive birth cohorts of Australian women, with each birth cohort maintaining significantly higher labour force participation than previous cohorts across most if not all of the lifecycle.

 

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What I like about this picture is that there is a line for my mother (born 1922-26), one for me (1952-56) and eventually there will be one for each of my daughters. It just pains me that I have to wait five years between each census to be able to update it.

I think some people would be surprised to realise that my mother’s generation was the first in which really significant numbers of women rejoined the workforce in middle age. After all, weren’t all those older generations of women (she would be 84 now) totally wedded to hearth and home?

Of the birth cohorts shown here (every second 5-year cohort), mine and every other since have not had labour force participation rates below 50 per cent. Indeed, it looks to me as if the labour force participation rate of women born in the 70s is unlikely to ever fall much below 70 per cent during their prime working years.

The picture also shows quite clearly the effect of postponed child-bearing in more recent birth cohorts, with the main child-bearing ‘dip’ broadening out and shifting to older age groups.

So anyone who thinks that it would be easy or even desirable to turn women’s roles around to those of earlier generations is in some kind of fairyland. But so are people who reckon that progress has stalled if not reversed,  whether because  of government conspiracy or community backlash. In the end, I reckon women know best what they want to do, and they’re doing it.

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Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Sure is a great graph. Reminding me that I just missed the film ’49 up’ which I try to see every seven years to see how the cohort is going!

JC
JC
14 years ago

BG
Good post.

But lets face facts. 90% of the wroking population-men and women hate what they are doing for work. Given a choice most people would rather do something else as only a few of us are lucky enough to find our true calling in life.

Most women even the mostt paid in the world -fiancial types on wall street- would rather be with their kids as they’re growing up.

Others work because they need to. We don’t know what women want to do because our tax structure doesn’t allow us to find out.

If we had a tax system that allowed a family starting out to live reasonably well on one wage I am sure you would find lots of young mothers opting out of the work force.

Not just cutting taxes, but also reducing the overhead costs that are imposed on us by well meaning governments. Things such as stamp duty on housing, cap gains taxes and low tax free thresholds.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
14 years ago

Yes, I would venture that a great chunk of that additional workforce participation rate are women who would rather be staying at home looking after the kids. Not everyone, in fact a very small minority, have challenging careers.

The fact is workforce participation has gone up almost entirely because of ever-rising mortgages, which means a two-income household now is a necessity.

It might be a conservative view, but there is something to be said for one parent being available at home for the children, at least in the primary school years.

So while feminists champion increased workforce participation as evidence of their advances, a social democratic view is that it just represents the ever increasing enchroachment of the market economy on family life.

Backroom Girl
Backroom Girl
14 years ago

And there was I thinking that my evidence was pretty incontrovertible!

Sorry, guys, I think the evidence shows that women’s labour force participation was increasing well in advance of the ‘ever-rising mortgages’ that you think are driving this. In any case, that is a case of chicken-and-egg I think – presumably increasing family incomes (in part because of increased dual-earning) are feeding into rising house prices, through increased capacity to pay.

And what about the fact that participation for recent birth cohorts peaks in the 45-49 and 50-54 year age groups – it doesn’t seem too likely to me that that is driven by big mortgages either. Speaking for myself, as a member of that age group, my mortgage is pretty small now.

I don’t doubt that some women might prefer to stay home and look after their children (or, more likely, work fewer hours) but I don’t think there is a lot of evidence that loads of women are particularly discontented with their modern lot and would really prefer to be home full-time with the kids and the kitchen.

According to the latest Melbourne Institute statistical report from the HILDA survey, women are at least as satisfied with their jobs as men on average (and most people of both sexes are satisfied, by the way, rather than obviously wanting to do something else).

In the end, I think most women do want to be in both worlds. They still want to be mothers, but they want a life in the workforce as well. They prefer to have an income of their own, rather than having to rely totally on a husband and/or other taxpayers through the welfare system. And of course all of this involves making choices – that’s what grown-ups do. And maybe if you asked most kids whether they would prefer to have one parent at home at their beck and call they would say ‘yes, please’ but perhaps it’s appropriate that children don’t get everything they want either.

The thing that is striking about Australia is the extent to which we have taken up part-time work as the solution to work/family balance. This is another topic addressed (somewhat inconsistently) in the House of Reps Committee report, that I may have more to say about in the future.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

Yes, it’s a beautiful graph. It also shows women’s increased participation in education.

BG’s interpretation of house prices and female labour force participation is much more plausible than Mr D’s.

I’d like to see a graph of NILF for male cohorts.

Jennifer
14 years ago

Great graph! I too would like to see male participation rates, but if (as I suspect) they’ve dropped over the years, I don’t really think that would support the argument that women are in the workforce because they have to be for economic reasons – I think they’re there because they want to be. I don’t know very many women who would genuinely never want to work again once their youngest child is in school.

JC
JC
14 years ago

We shouldn’t speculate about whether women, or men for that matter, want to continue in the workforce or stay home with the kids. We don’t know the answer.

If you examnine the things that matter the most for family formation: things such as housing and schooling ( private schooling) inflation rates for these areas have been ripping along at enormous rates of increases.

The city where I live placed a ring around the outskirts and said that “urban sprawl” is not allowed to pass beyond that line in the sand. Although they have also indicated they would be a little more relaxed about height restrictions, the reality is that height restrictions in the city still apply mainly because of nimby pressure.

Not wanting to walk away from a boom without sticking it’s greasy hand out, the government has also started to charge $8,000 per block for additional infrastructure costs. All well and good, but then why also charge a stamp duty and GST? Someone came out and said that the cost of a new home on an estate is now made up of about 35% in government charges.

Add to that the land squeeze the government has created through not really allowing height access by allowing taller buildings and you end up with the cost of a new home possibly about 50% more than it should.

That makes a big differences to the mortgage belt which is the population segment that needs two bread winners to makes ends meet in order to pay the mortgage.

This is an example of government actions screwing the average person in the street

Now we can argue all we want about female work preference but we don’t really know the answer to that question until we have greatly reduced the cost of living overhead goverments place on people’s lives. If mortages were 1/2 the size i would bet it would certainly cause a rethink by both men and women about child careandn work

No amount of polls or surverys would be able to tell us the truth unless the question was structured properly.

1. So you have housing prices going through the roof as a result bad government policy and greedy government action.

2. you have very low tax threshold despite the regressive nature of the GST

3. You have the RBA pumping out monetary stimlus and casuing rational people to protect their wealth by borrowing to buy hard assets instead of renting and taking it a little easier on the finacial pressure side of things.

We then wonder why we need two salaries for family formation but also think this is the good thing.

This is craziness, living this way.

Backroom Girl
Backroom Girl
14 years ago

I think you’re right, Don, that increasing education is a large part of the story. One of the reasons my Mum was able to go back into a white-collar job in her 50s (after raising six children) was because, unlike the majority of her generation, she had actually finished high school.

I’m not sure whether the ‘back to the golden days of the 50s’ nostalgics actually believe in girls getting an education, because they don’t seem to believe in them using it for anything other than, presumably, helping their own children to get an education. I remember being totally gobsmacked one day to read a letter to the editor from a woman who was extremely proud of the fact that after she had stayed home to devote herself to her children (the only right choice), her four daughters had all gone on to get university educations and were now stay-at-home mums raising the next generation.

Such was my indignation, it was the only time I ever managed to have a letter to the editor printed. But now that I am a blogger perhaps I’ll have more opportunities to share my prejudices.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

BG – I remember listening to woman complaining that she couldn’t find a decent office junior anymore. In the good old days there were plenty of bright, highly motivated 17 year old girls but today, all the applicants were well below standard. Was it the appalling state of schooling today?

I don’t think it had occurred to her that the cheap, numerate, literate 16 and 17 year olds she was looking for had no intention of leaving school to fetch cups of tea, answer the phone and do filing. They were bound for university.

In the past female labour has been a real bargain for many employers but I think that’s coming to an end. For years, the welfare and community sectors have been filled with highly capable older women who see their role in life as caring for others rather than pursuing the kind of careers their husbands did. Teaching and nursing once attracted young women who now go on to to do much better paid professions. And all kinds of low paid jobs were done by under-educated young women waiting to drop out of the labour force and start families. Why stay at school if you’re just going to be a wife and mother, their dads said.

It’s going to be a real shock to governments when they’re forced to pay market rates for labour that used to come at a discount (eg aged care, child care, human services). I doubt if too many university educated young women are going to give their work away the way their grandmothers did.

Backroom Girl
Backroom Girl
14 years ago

That’s why I have a beef with claims from people like Bob Gregory and Anne Summers that nothing has really changed because the proportion of women working full-time today is not much higher than it used to be.

First, you only have to think for half a minute about how today’s full-time jobs compare to those of 30 or 40 years ago to know that that is a ridiculous suggestion. I would even go so far as to say that many of the part-time jobs that women have now are probably better than some of the full-time jobs they had in the past.

Second, what about those part-time jobs? But that really is a subject for another post – coming soon.

JC
JC
14 years ago

BG

My better 1/2 as former uni teacher. She gave it up and never looked back and likes her life at home and doing some charity work on the side.

She has no regrets and she shouldn’t be looked upon because she never re-entered the wrokforce in a way that conformed to some “modern” notion of how a womans worth should be measured.

That woman you spoke about was inferring the same thing I’m talking about and its nice to see poople talking about things like that in such an honest way.

Making a buck and having status through work is not the be all and end all.

Don A

Any shortages of capable staff for the areas you spoke about could be and I beleive are being satisfied through immigration targeting.

Thinking in old ways
Thinking in old ways
14 years ago

What is all this stuff about what women want.

The bottom line is we work to earn money to get food and shelter to buy toys (cars and tvs) and enable ourselves to procreate.

In industrial societies we have developed a culture where there was a marked division of labour between domestic production (mainly) undertaken by women and market place production undertaken by men. In marriage there was some agreement on the division of labour (between equal or unequal partners) which usually ended up in the male breadwinner model.

The world has changed. Domestic work is no longer as onerous – and certainly does not require the same time and effort – and there are more market trade-offs – you can buy bread instead of baking it – you can purchase afterschool care, etc.

This involves a rethinking of roles and new divisions of labour.

It is not a choice of whether or not women want to work – but rather if their domestic production is relatively low why shouldn’t they be out there working for their share of the crust? (It is also useful insurance in case the relationship breaks up.)

As BG points out this is not just about mothers with young children.

Backroom Girl
Backroom Girl
14 years ago

That’s fine JC – of course people should choose what makes them happiest and feeling worthwhile. I don’t think I really suggested otherwise. All I’m saying is that I think it’s a really big ask to infer that the majority of women working now are only doing so because someone or something is making them do it. I, and I daresay many other women, find that rather insulting, as if we aren’t capable of making adult decisions about what to do with our lives. And I am perfectly happy to be labelled ‘modern’ – from where I sit, it’s better than the alternative (pre-modern?), but each to his or her own.

I do sincerely wonder, though, why taxpayers should make a big investment in somebody’s education if they have no intention of using it for the benefit of people other than their own family. (Doesn’t apply to your wife, of course, since clearly she did work for a number of years before finding something more fulfilling to do.)

spog
spog
14 years ago

My eyes must be going. The graph is too hard for me to read. How come everyone else seems to have had no problem?

JC
JC
14 years ago

BG

I actually think women are great at white collar jobs as the stats keep showing.

They look like owning the legal profession at some stage. They are great in the medical profession.

They are also starting up small business at a much faster rate then men are.

Job search forms are a good example of the areas of business women do great in.

I think the days where women were thought of as second rate for no other reason than silly untested opinion are long over.

But women, thankfully also have a loving need to have kids and be with them when they grow up.

In my time I have witnessed lots of really highly paid gals on Wall Street, living miserable lives because they had nannies taking care of their kids while they went out to work and slogged it out. Seriously some of these gals were earning bucket loads as top class security sales people. And some just walked in one day and gave it all up. Never to be seen again but certainly happy with their lives as I found years later.

Taxpayers shouldn’t make any investment in people’s education. We should do that ourselves. I also think the American system in allowing for that anyway. No one at the age of 17 ought to be doing a specialized degree as they are mostly too young to figure out want they want to do with their lives. It would be best to specialize after a BA.

In any event education should not be just about work. it ought to be about knowlwedge and learning for the sake of doing so. We are far too concerned with getting a degree to get us to that first interview in OZ.

Backroom Girl
Backroom Girl
14 years ago

Well JC, if I had made pots of money on Wall Street (and all that implies) I probably would have walked out at some stage too.

JC
JC
14 years ago

BG

What I am saying is that even the money angle didn’t get these gals to stay on. in other words they had better things to do with their lives.

In any event the freedom and choices for women are the best they have ever been…. thanks to the early poineers in the feminst movment and an expanding job market.

Backroom Girl
Backroom Girl
14 years ago

JC – couldn’t agree more. It’s why I do what I do, rather than just making as much money as I can doing something else.

You can tell I’m used to having the last word, though :-)

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

Spog – To enlarge the graph try this:

1. Place the cursor over the graph
2. Right click (assuming you’ve got a two button mouse)
3. Select “view image”

Zoe
Zoe
14 years ago

But women, thankfully also have a loving need to have kids and be with them when they grow up.

Well, not all of them, JC.