Whither the Women?

Mary Lorenzo, 66, worked at the Sparrow Point steel mill near Baltimore for 31 years, performing a variety of heavy labor jobs.
Mary Lorenzo, 66, worked at the Sparrow Point steel mill near Baltimore for 31 years, performing a variety of heavy labor jobs. "When you get older, it gets harder because most of the work is physical," she says. She retired in 2002. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Nell Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006

The trend was clear and consistent. Since the end of World War II and stretching to the start of the current millennium, the percentage of American women entering the labor force rose steadily, at a rate so fast that it offset the steady decline in participation by men.

The influx of fresh workers buoyed economic growth. As companies expanded and demand rose, there were plenty of hands to get the job done.

But women's rush to employment stopped in 2000 and started to decline, as they began to join their male counterparts in retirement, go out on disability and delay paid employment to get more education. Some economists think the high-water mark of female participation in the labor force was in 2000, when it hit 60.3 percent.

"The enormous rise in [the] women's labor force participation rate was destined to run its course," wrote demographer Cheryl Russell in a recent analysis. "Most women who want or need to work are now in the labor force."

This flattening of the women's rate, combined with a continuing decline in the men's rate, has helped tighten the job market and could slow U.S. economic growth in coming years, economists say.

A paper by four Federal Reserve economists to be published this month by the Brookings Institution puts it this way: The decisions recently of so many Americans to opt out of the workforce are "nearly unprecedented in the post-war economic experience" and "seems large and unusually protracted by historical standards."

Contrary to popular theory, Labor Department data do not show a rising proportion of women dropping out of the workforce to spend time with their families. Indeed, the participation rate has fallen since 2000 for both women with children and women without children.

While nonworking women are still much more likely than men to cite "home responsibilities" as their reason for not holding or seeking a job, that's actually less true now than it was in the past. The share of women aged 25 to 54, considered to be in their "prime" working years, who gave that reason for not seeking employment has shrunk for more than a decade. The share of men citing that reason has edged up over the same period, according to a Labor Department analysis of census survey figures from 1990 to 2003.

The female participation rate peaked below the men's, though, because women still take out more time to care for children and other relatives, analysts say and the data show.

"During soft economic times, women with young children will be more likely to stay home if they can afford not to work. This is not a new trend; it's just common sense," Russell wrote. She added in an interview that the women's participation rate will probably never match the men's rate because of childbearing. "That is the biological gap."

Still, what the data show is that working women are behaving in a similar fashion to men: As the population ages, more workers of both sexes are retiring or being pushed to the sidelines by disability. More younger workers are staying in school longer to juice up their future career prospects in an increasingly information-based economy. Many middle-aged workers have lost industrial jobs and have gone back to school for retraining or have given up looking for new work.

"I don't want to work anymore," said Mary Lorenzo, 66, who retired in 2002 after laboring for 31 years at the Sparrows Point steel mill near Baltimore, pouring coal into coke ovens, shoveling mud and repairing electrical equipment. "I really enjoyed it when I was young. . . . But when you get older, it gets harder because most of the work is physical."

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