Saturday, May 14, 2011

Men, Women in the Labor Force

A recent column by David Brooks commenting on the decline in male participation in the labor force led me to look up the trends and the latest data on this ever-intriguing subject. Let me begin with a summary graphic from an article in the Monthly Labor Review, October 2006. It charts trends nicely from 1948 forward. The article is available here.


What it shows is that, indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics agrees with David Brooks. As a percent of the labor force, men are losing share of total jobs. In 1948 96.6 percent of all men aged 25 to 54 were working; in 2005 the number had declined to 90.5 percent. Corresponding figures for women were 35 percent in 1948 and 75.3 percent in 2005. Also intriguing is the fact that the elderly—55 and older—while having reached an all-time low in participation in 1995 (30%) were, in 2005, heading back up (37.2%) and almost as high as they had been in 1948 (43.3%). The chart also serves as a reminder that economic down-turns are a rather recurring pattern in our free-wheeling economy.

The next graphic updates this series using BLS data from here. I’m showing the numbers, at 5-year intervals, from 1950 to 2010. What I find striking here is that everybody’s participation has dropped thanks to the Great Recession. But while men went down 1.2 percent (from 90.5 to 89.3), women only lost 0.1 percent (going from 75.3 to 75.2). In the workforce, women are always retained longer than men. But the fault for this lies with men: they ought to insist that women be paid the same as men for all equivalent work! They aren’t. Therefore, good-bye!


These are not exactly demographic trends, which have the character of fate; but they do show broad social and economic trends worthy of a few minutes of contemplation. The contrast between 37 and 75 percent of women working outside the home (1948, 2010) surely has an effect on child-raising. The effect would seem minimal once women are into their late thirties, but earlier? In 2010 68.3 percent of women 20-24 and 74.7 percent of women 25-34 were working—ages when their children were toddlers up to teenagers. Does that affect society? The economic situation is also shown when we contemplate that 31.5 percent of both sexes aged 65-69 were still at work—and an amazingly high 18 percent of those aged 70-74! And there is also something here, though difficult to ferret out, that says something about the male’s conception of his role in society. But the less said, perhaps, the better…

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