Are we seeing a new trend in motherhood, in which the most educated mothers are in the work force and those least educated are at home?
That seems to be the pattern emerging from the latest census data announced in October, showing that families with two parents in the work force are now officially the typical American family--more than 51% of families. Even women with babies are in the work force: 59% of mothers with infants under a year are employed, as are 73% of mothers of older children.
The numbers of women working is a familiar story, but the real surprise is who's at home. Education is playing a significant role in which mothers work and which don't. Among college-educated women, 68% of those who had a baby within the past year were employed, compared with only 38% of those who had not graduated from high school.
This picture is almost exactly the opposite of the idea that has been popular in the media for years: that women wanted to stay home, and if they had the resources to do so, they would. The women who stayed in the work force were supposed to be those with the least economic resources, who had to work.
As someone who tracks the way the media portray working women, I've noted several waves of stories during the past decade that proclaimed that women were at last returning home. Headlines like these made the case:
* "Number of Stay-at-Home Moms on the Rise"--Louisville Courier-Journal.
* "Mothers Jilt Jobs for Homes, Families"--Gannett News Service.
* "The Return of the Single (Male) Breadwinner"--Chicago Sun-Times.
But none of these stories turned out to be true. Analysts at the Census Bureau report that there is no sign that the movement of women into the work force has peaked, and they expect it to continue.
It's disturbing to note, however, that the women with the least education are those most likely to be out of the job market.
These are the women on whom the current demographic and economic trends will have the greatest negative impact.
Demographic projections show that women are living very long lives and will continue to do so. A 65-year-old woman today can expect to live, on average, an additional 19 years. An 85-year-old woman can, on average, expect to live more than six more years. Some estimate that a white baby girl born today has a 1 in 3 chance of living for 100 years.
The shape of the population is changing dramatically. The familiar pyramid shape, in which most people are young, will change to that of a stack, where the number of people over 65 will outnumber those under 15.
All this raises the very real specter of a legion of older women facing dwindling resources. Those least educated and out of the work force for a significant period of time will be the most vulnerable. They will probably outlive their husbands--and their husbands' pension benefits. And even if they do have some retirement benefits of their own, those may be meager. The Heinz Foundation notes that women retirees receive only half the average pension benefits that men receive and that women's earnings average 74 cents for every $1 earned by men--a lifetime loss of more than $250,000.
If these at-home women get divorced, their problems may increase. The Heinz Foundation notes that most women reasonably assume that their lawyers know all about the federal and state laws in this area. Too often they don't, and many divorced women lose some or all of the retirement benefits that should have rightfully been theirs.
Women now outnumber men on most college campuses, and perhaps for college women, the idea that they can't use the skills they have spent years acquiring because they have children simply doesn't resonate. Plus, if they have good jobs, they aren't so eager to leave. Women stuck in dead-end jobs may staying home a relief from a high-pressure, low-reward workplace. But they are extremely vulnerable to economic forces.
What this all means is that we have to tell young girls, especially those in poor and working-class families, that staying in school is critical to their future well-being. The idea that the typical at-home mom was the contented spouse of a high-earning male has been punctured by the latest data. The true picture may be of a woman very much at risk.