Opting out and jumping in

Because the opt-out revolution was a myth, it’s hard to know where to start talking about what became of the the “opt-out generation.”

The historical story could be shortened down to this: Women’s employment rates — and those of married mothers with young children in particular — rose quickly in the 1970s and 1980s, but that growth stalled in the 1990s. Since then, the trends are mostly flat. No successful attempts to impose grander themes on the more recent trends come to mind, but feel free to reference them in the comments if you know of any.*

I’ll show one older chart before showing you what’s new, inspired by the Judith Warner cover story in the NYTimes magazine last week. Back in 2007 I made the following graph to contribute to this briefing paper. Using the March Current Population Surveys, it shows the employment rates for married mothers of young children divided into four groups according to how much income their households had apart from their own earnings:


Wives with access to little other income (who need jobs most) and those with access to lots of other income (who need them least) have the lowest employment rates. But the similar shapes of these curves reinforces the take-home message: regardless of economic need — as represented by other income in the household — married mother’s tendency to be employed peaked in the mid-to-late 1990s and then stalled or tapered downward into the 2000s. That’s not a revolution (for most people nothing changed after the mid 1990s), and it’s not about rich professionals, but it is a serious divergence from several decades of rapid increase. Since then, this narrative has strengthened, and we now have a full-blown situation with stalled progress toward gender equality (for many posts on this, see also the Hanna Rosin tag).

However, we can be more specific to capture Lisa Belkin’s and Judith Warner’s opting-out and jumping in concepts. Let’s use these definitions:

  • Opting out: The movement from any employment in one year to being out of labor labor force in March of the following year.
  • Jumping in: The movement from no employment in the previous year to being in the labor force the following March.

To approximate the groups that inspired the NYTimes, I apply these definitions to 25-54-year-old, married, college-educated women with children, using the March CPS from 1976 to 2012, to get these trends (shown with approximate timing of recessions):


One can see long-term and short-term trends in the figure. In the long run, opting out has become much less common, dropping from nearly 18% in a given year to less than 3% in 2012. In the long run, the opt-out revolution is a bust. And the tendency to jump in for those who weren’t employed in a given year (I don’t know if it’s back in, with these data), has been pretty flat at between 8% and 10%, with increases after most recessions.

Notice some short-term trends, however. From 1995 to 2003, the opt-out trend stopped heading downward. That happened again from 2006 to 2012. And over the 2000s there was a modest increase in the jump-in rate, from a low point of 6.4% to over 10%. These fluctuations contribute to the overall trend of labor force participation for 25-54-year-old, married, college-educated women with children, which fell from 1997 to 2003, and then rebounded some until 2009:


Note that opting out and jumping in aren’t the only things that matter. A woman who starts employment at 24 and never leaves till 65 — or one who never has a job — wouldn’t contribute to either trend.

The opting out and jumping in stories aren’t crazy, they’re just exaggerations of fluctuations in the trends, and they distract us from the bigger picture. That said, there are good stories to be told in here, and both of these provided fodder for improving our understanding.

In the long run, the long-term trends matter more. And that is pretty clear: big increase in labor force participation for this group of women from the 1970s to the mid-1990s, stall since. The fact that opting-out shows a continued decline, however, is an interesting wrinkle I’m not prepared to explain.

UPDATE: Reeve Vanneman sent along the figure he describes in the comments below. The definitions are a little different (not just college educated mothers, employment instead of labor force participation), but the trend goes back to 1963, showing the increase in jump-ins and drop in opt-outs in the 60s and 70s. Note, however, that where Reeve et al. found exits plateauing by the early 2000s, my figure above shows opt-outs started declining again after that.


*For background, I recommend Pamela Stone’s book Opting Out: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home; a Council on Contemporary Families briefing paper from 2007; and the paper by Christine Percheski in American Sociological Review from 2008, “Opting Out? Cohort Differences in Professional Women’s Employment Rates from 1960 to 2005.”

6 thoughts on “Opting out and jumping in

  1. The opting out and jumping in graphs do indeed improve our understanding. I don’t think they are distracting at all; in fact they may be *more* important in understanding the underlying processes — sort of like the difference between fertility rates which demographers study and the resulting birth rates which they usually ignore (my weak demographic training may be showing here…). The labor force participation rates change more slowly but they reflect changes in entries and exits that may have happened quite awhile ago.
    Several years ago, in one of those projects that you always intend to get back to but never have time for, my colleagues Dave Cotter & Joan Hermsen and I plotted out these CPS entry and exit rates. Our population was different (all married mothers regardless of education rather than just college grads), and we started the trend a little earlier. What we found was that most of the real increases for mothers’ “jumping in” were over by the early 1980s and most of the decreases for “opting out” were over by 1990. The participation rate continued to increase for several years after (until the mid-1990s) because the earlier changes in the entry and exit rates implied a higher participation rate than was currently observed. And they are both pretty flat after that — like you found and contrary to all the buzz about opting out.
    But there’s a lag between changes in entries and exits on the one hand and the resulting participation rates on the other. So, most of the real changes in married mother’s behavior happened in the 1970s and early 1980s. After that, it was just the lfp adjusting to those changes in entries & exits. I will email you the CPS chart (we also have a similar one for the PSID with a somewhat different definition of entries and exits but a similar story) because I haven’t figured out how to paste it into a comment…

    Reeve Vanneman


  2. I was going to say that it looks as though the boom economy of the mid-to-late 1990s made a difference, maybe at all income levels. I But now with what Reeve says (Hi, Reeve), I’m puzzled, though the 90s boom may account for the halt of the opting-out decrease. A decent salary is a pretty good reason to not quit your day job.


  3. And what about that big drop in opting out after 2003? 6% -> 3%. cut in half. BTW: this happens just as Lisa Belkin writes her article about *more* opting out. So what explains that drop? We should have written up those results when the story was simpler. Now, we’ll never get to it.


  4. “Once she started to work, she started to place more value in herself, and because she put more value in herself, she put herself in front of a lot of things — family, and ultimately, her marriage.”

    This is a very common feeling among men, I think.

    The “problem” is that housework doesn’t take as much effort as it did 75 years ago, and — naturally — women get bored. Men need to accept that.

    I guess they can’t be satisfied drinking beer, watching ESPN and puttering around the garage… 🙂

    Without a salary or an independent work identity, her self-confidence plummeted. “I felt like such a loser,”

    So, what you’re saying is that raising children is for losers. That’s… bad.

    Anyway, as our kids got older, my wife went back to work part-time, and still does, because she values driving car-pool a few times a week more than she does the extra hours of wages.

    running bake sales for the suburban swim team tended not to be a career-enhancer

    It can be, with realistic expectations.

    But now they were learning that some things were beyond even their prodigious powers of control.

    Motherhood is a sacrifice. Always has been, always will be. People who can’t figure that out are destined for heartbreak.

    Carrie was totally absorbed by her children

    I think she’s mentally ill.

    There’s still almost half the article to go, but really should end it here…


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