A recent Pew survey indicates that more women have decided to forego paid unemployment and stay home with their children. Since 1999, the report indicates, the percentage of stay-at-home moms has risen modestly after having fallen sharply and consistently since 1967. There can be any number of reasons for this turn: greater wealth among high-income families and, among the less skilled, difficulty finding work, especially during the last six years or so. Pew points also to the growth in the immigrant population, where the culture is less amenable to working mothers.
All this is entirely plausible, but, as the new book Thirty Tomorrows makes clear, powerful demographic trends will soon turn this trend around. The decline in the relative size of the working-age population in this country will, among other things, increase the pressure on women to return to the workplace. According to the Bureau of the Census, this country will by 2030 have barely three people of working age for each dependent retiree. The situation will threaten the country’s ability to shoulder pension obligations, both private and public, and impair its economic growth potential. A desperate need for skilled labor will develop, and the return of women to paid work will form a part of the country’s response.
There is a significant potential, too. According to the Census Bureau, only some 70 percent of working-age women now participate in the paid workforce. That compares with a figure closer to 90 percent for men. If women only go half way to the male figure, it could add 7 percent to the workforce, not enough to answer the entire demographic shortfall to be sure, but a significant relief nonetheless. Still, getting women back to work, especially the moms, will demand radical changes in the workplace.
The key here is childcare. Washington can help in a number of ways, but the more significant effort will emerge as employers, government and private, make accommodations of their own. The easiest thing for them is to allow release time during the workday for parents to ferry children from school to other supervised activities. Large firms, where great numbers of employees gather in one place, will increasingly offer on-site childcare. Many, such as SEI in Oaks, Pennsylvania, already do. Employees could easily get to the point where they pressure the authorities to allow parents to enroll their children in school near work instead of home. Such an arrangement would not only make the family commute easier, but it would also give parents the peace of mind available from having quick access to their children. Firms might even encourage the switch by offering to finance nearby schools as a more cost-effective way to lure employees than with premium wages.
It will take a while to take these steps. Because they are a departure from current practice, they will naturally face resistance, among corporate managements as well as in the country’s many government bureaucracies. But as the inexorable demographic pressure builds, the intensifying relative shortage of talented workers will force these and other accommodations to make women’s participation in the labor force a part of the solution to the country’s economic and financial needs.