This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.Virginia Postrel: You’re a historian and leading labor economist, known for your work with Larry Katz on education and inequality. Your new book, which synthesizes several decades of research by you and other economists, is called “Career & Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey toward Equity.” How do you define career and family?

Claudia Goldin, professor of economics, Harvard University and author, “Career & Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey toward Equity:” Career means to run a race, as in the word chariot. It’s any position that gives satisfaction and identity, and it generally provides rising earnings with time on the job. And family is having a child.

VP: What does the research tell us about women, career, and family?

CG: That it isn’t a simple “fix the women, fix the men, bring in government” answer. The problem is mainly — but not entirely — that children take time and careers take time and they vie for the same time.

VP: Can you give us an example of how that plays out in labor markets?

CG: The issue is the cost of flexibility. If an individual would like to have a job that enables the ability to have some on-call-at-home time, then the question is, How much does that cost? It’s not just flexibility, it’s the cost of flexibility. If the cost of flexibility is low, then the two sides of this same problem — couple equity and gender equality — converge. The individual who’s going to be on call at home is not going to be losing a large amount in terms of income. 

VP: You tell stories where you have a professional couple who start out with essentially the same jobs and the same salaries. At some point, they have children and they both continue to have careers. But one takes a “greedy” job that brings in more money and the other takes the more flexible job that is still full-time but brings in less money. First, can you explain what you mean by greedy work?

CG: Greedy work pays more on an hourly basis when the work is done at the times the manager would like it done. It could result in longer hours, but may not. It is evening, weekend, vacation, rush work.

VP: OK. So back to the example of the couple. One of them takes the greedy job and over time, their incomes diverge significantly. In the book, that seems like a kind of failure or an inequitable situation, but it could also be a solution.

CG: The unfortunate situation is that they might have wanted to have 50/50 lives. And then the greedy job simply means that it will cost them a lot more to have a 50/50 relationship. If they have kids, then someone has to be on call at home. And if the job is exceptionally greedy, being on call at the office pays the person a phenomenal amount more. They could both take a job that allows them to be on call at home, but that might lead them to give up $50,000 a year. They might decide a 50/50 relationship is worth $5,000, maybe $10,000, but not $50,000.

VP: Your book traces how women have grappled with these choices over the last 100 years. You tell the story of college-educated women in the labor force as a series of groups — generations or cohorts. That’s the “century-long journey” of the subtitle. Can you just walk us through those four groups?

CG: Group One is the earliest, and it’s born somewhere before 1900. It’s a group that is graduating college around the first decade or two of the 20th century. By and large, either they get married — and many of those have children — or they don’t get married, don’t have kids, and have a generally fulfilling job. I think of them as a group of women who had a family or a career. Of this entire group, about 50% never have kids. And the reason it’s so low is that a large fraction never got married.

I generally sort of skipped from there to Group Three, who are the mothers of the baby boomers. That’s a group that is born from the 1920s to the early 1940s. (In between is this transitional Group Two that begins with very low marriage rates, very low fertility rates, like Group One, and winds up with very high marriage rates and very high fertility rates, like Group Three.) With Group Three we see very high rates of marriage. College-educated women begin to look more and more like everyone else. Women in Group Three are the ones that said family first, and then a job.

VP: This is the generation of women Betty Friedan wrote about in “The Feminine Mystique,” published in 1963. What did she get wrong?

CG: She wanted to portray the college-educated mothers of the baby boomers as making big mistakes. They were backward, they were retrograde, they weren’t as good as the previous group. She said over and over again that they were dropping out of college at very high rates, that they didn’t go on to get advanced degrees the same way the previous group did. And actually, all of that is wrong.

It turns out that the fraction who got post-B.A. degrees was in fact significantly higher than for the previous group. The fraction who dropped out wasn’t as high as she said. It doesn’t mean that they were all happy. They were stuck at home with the kids for a while, but they all had what I call their “get out of jail, free” cards in hand. They had college degrees. They did express a fair amount of unhappiness and frustration with the world of work that was not treating them very well. And they were right – but the previous generation probably even had a worse time with it. For me, the big thing that she was really wrong on was that this was a generation that really did advance women.

VP: You make the point that when they were in college, most of them were taking pre-professional career tracks. They were getting teaching certificates. They were studying nursing. Those might have been traditionally female type jobs, but they were thinking ahead to the idea that they would be working for some significant portion of their lives.

CG: Yes. And then there was a cataclysmic change from Group Three to Group Four. Prior to 1950, it was normal for college women to get married a year or two after they graduated from college. Even those who got law degrees, medical degrees, MBAs — you got married just about as soon as you graduated. But starting with women born in the early 1950s or so, the age of first marriage just starts rising very, very sharply. That’s related to the Pill.

With Group Four, which is the group I belong to, it was career, then family. They assumed that if you cement the career first, then it’s pretty easy to have the family — look at these people, they reproduce like rabbits, very simple – except it isn’t. And I refer in the book to the famous print of the woman crying, “I forgot to have children!” In recognition of this, Group Five — this is a group born from the mid 1950s and beyond graduating college somewhere in the late 1970s and beyond — says their aspiration is, “We’re going to have both of them. We’re going have career and a family, not one or the other.”

VP: How does Group Five’s behavior differ from Group Four’s?

CG: You would think that they would start having their kids earlier, but they haven’t. In fact, if anything, they’ve had them slightly later. But a very large fraction — my computations are that it’s about 50% — of the increase in the child rearing of that group has come from assisted reproductive technology. They’ve been enabled by technological change and by state mandates regarding health insurance.

VP: How important are technological changes in the broader story?

CG: I think of technological changes as being incredibly important. I think the most important ones in the history of gender would be the ones that took us from brawn work to brain work — how lucky we are to have been born into a century that has electricity and machinery. And the next ones are also ones that that we often don’t think of, which are the ones that made our lives healthier, safer, cleaner and the home more productive, such as the provision of safe and clean water. There are also the technological changes that enabled women to control their fertility, which made childbirth safer.

VP: Demographer Lyman Stone argues that Americans are having fewer children than they say they plan to and want to, and that as a result, low fertility rates are a problem not just in a macro sense, but in an individual sense for families. What do you make of that argument?

CG: First, for most of human history, the opposite was true — and that’s a lot worse. Second, many sociologists and demographers base that off a set of answers that are given in surveys such as the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, in which 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds are asked, How many kids do you want? They look to see how many people have. Almost everyone answers the median. That’s an important bias.

The other one is that is that people do revise. So if someone initially said the median, which was three at the time, and then by the time the person was 28, they didn’t have any kids, they would revise it to one. So I’m not quite certain what it means to say that people are having fewer children than they want, because by and large, by the time they’re in their 40s, the number that they’ve had is the number that they say they want. It’s only when you go back and compare that to what they said at 18.

VP: There is that print, though: “I forgot to have children.”

CG: Right. Group Four, the baby boomers, probably did have fewer kids than they wanted. But the fraction of college-graduate women who have had at least one child has greatly increased from Group Four to Group Five. The more interesting questions, I think, concern countries like Japan, Korea, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and all the other countries with total fertility rates that are not only below 2.1 — the replacement rate — but below 1.5. How many of us would have thought that some of the countries with the lowest fertility are the Catholic and Orthodox countries?

VP: If some jobs are greedy, what’s the solution? You said there isn’t a “fix the women, fix the men, bring in government” answer. What do you recommend, whether to managers, policy makers, or young women and men planning their lives?

CG: To vote with your feet. The economic system can work. But for women, I think the answer is find a mate — I don’t care what sex it is — who wants what you want. And that’s the way to do it. If my book does anything, it’s a statement of caution: that there aren’t quick fixes, just as there aren’t quick fixes for Covid, there aren’t quick fixes for cancer, there aren’t quick fixes for the environment. These wouldn’t be problems of importance and difficulty if there were quick fixes. And there’s enormous hubris on the part of individuals who somehow believe that there’s a policy for everything, and everything can be fixed, and they can be fixed overnight, and we can wave magic wands over individuals to fix it. It’s just too difficult.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a visiting fellow at the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy at Chapman University and the author, most recently, of “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.