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.
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.