The Thinking 

Has the Percentage of Employed Women Peaked for Good?

May 29, 2012



What has been the most enduring hallmark of the rise of women in the public sphere and the attendant deterioration of the private sphere? It is the greater propensity of women to work for monetary compensation. Ever since 1870, when data collection on this subject began, women have worked for money more and more with each passing decade.

Things changed, however, in the year 2000, more precisely in April 2000; that month marked the high water mark of women’s workforce participation. Among all women, 25 to 54 years old, 77.3 percent were in the Labor Force in April 2000; the equivalent ratio for men for that month was 91.7 percent. (These data come from the Current Population Survey; Current Population Survey data on labor force participation tends to be a bit higher than data given by the Census.)

The first available data on women’s labor force participation comes from the 1870 Census. In 1870, 13.1 percent of all females over the age of 10 worked; that proportion rose to 14.7 percent in 1880 and 17.0 percent in 1890. Looking at females aged 16 and over 16.0 percent worked in 1880, 18.6 percent (estimated) worked in 1890, and 20.6 percent worked in 1900.

Below is a table giving women’s labor force participation rates (LFPRs) in the age range from 25 to 54 years old for selected years from 1890 to 1950. Data comes from Decennial Censuses.

All Women



1890 14.9% 10.3% 37.3%
1900 17.3% 12.6% 41.8%
1930 24.1% 22.2% 47.1%
1950 33.2% 31.8% 46.1%

Below is a table giving men’s labor force participation rates in the age range from 25 to 54 years old.

All Men



1900 96.2%
1930 97.2% 97.2% 96.9%
1950 92.9% 93.4% 88.5%

The year 1930 marked the beginning of the decline in men’s labor force participation as well as the beginning of black men being in the labor force less than white men. In April 2012, the most recent month available, white men’s LFPR was 90.0  percent and black men’s LFPR was 79.2  percent (25 to 54 years old , not seasonally adjusted).

The Current Population Survey series on labor force participation starts commences in January, 1948. In January 1948, the LFPR of women 25 to 54 years old was 33.5 percent and for men was 96.7  percent.  From January 1948 to April 2000, women’s labor force participation tended to rise continuously but not in a straight line. First there was a period of moderate steady rise from 1948 to 1973, then from 1973 to 1982 the speed of increase accelerated making for the fastest period of growth, then from 1982 to 1990 there was a period of growth that was noticeably slower than the previous period of growth but still rather fast, then from 1990 to 2000 the rate of growth slowed markedly; the final peak being in April 2000.

After April 2000, the unthinkable happened, women’s labor force participation actually fell. For those interested in seeing what this pattern looks like with their own eyes I recommend the Economagic site. Set the time span for this chart from 1948 to 2013; the default time span given is from 1990 to 2013.

For men aged 25 to 54, from 1948 to 1967, labor force participation was approximately flat at a level near 100 percent. After 1967, men’s labor force participation fell continuously in a stair step pattern where periods of rapid decline were followed by periods of stabilization, followed by more of rapid decline. In January 1948, men’s labor force participation was 96.7 percent; in January 1967,  it was 96.8 percent; in April 2000 it was 91.7 percent; and in April 2012 (the most recent month available) it was 88.7 percent. To see the chart I am describing follow this link. Set the time span from 1948 to 2013.

In review, women’s labor force participation went up continuously from 1870 to 2000; after April 2000, this very long standing trend then reversed. Men’s labor force participation stayed about the same from 1870 to 1930; then fell from 1930 to 1950; then stayed about the same from 1950 to 1967; then fell continuously from 1967 to the current day. What happened then after April 2000? Both men’s and women’s labor force participation fell at the same time!

Historically women’s LFPR has risen much faster than men’s LFPR has fallen, leading to an overall increase in the LFPR. This is what led to the high level of “job creation” in earlier decades. The Aughts however were a different matter; the time from January 2000 to January 2010, was a great jobs bust. It was a “Lost Decade” in terms of job growth.

This has led to more men pursuing traditional female jobs, such as nursing, as discussed in a recent New York Times piece. From the article:

“Over the last decade, men have begun flocking to fields long the province of women.” The article states “from 2000 to 2010, occupations that are more than 70   percent female accounted for almost a third of all job growth for men, double the share of the previous decade.” “Nationally, two-thirds more men were bank tellers, almost twice as many were receptionists and two-thirds more were waiting tables in 2010 than a decade earlier.”

The New York Times predictably enough focuses on the “gender bending” of the men and portrays men entering predominantly female occupations as proof of growing androgyny and therefore part of the advancement of feminism. I believe the opposite is going on; that men are entering into predominantly female occupations as part of the process of men retaking larger portions of the workforce and assuming their traditional role.

The presence of women in the workforce is way too large today. In order for society to return to a healthier relationship between the sexes and more respect for children, women must become more and more scarce in the working world. For things to truly be on the right track, we must see increased labor force participation by men. This part of the equation is not happening yet. Nevertheless, women leaving the workforce is a good start in the right direction. From April 2000 to April 2012, women’s participation in the workforce, ages 25 to 54, fell from 77.3 percent to 74.3 percent.

I predict that this is just the beginning of the decline. The forces pushing women out of the workforce have finally surpassed the forces drawing women in.

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