ARE modest interest rates driving a major lifestyle change for Americans or just allowing some women to spend more time at home? Economists are debating what might be called, "The case of the missing 20- to-24-year-old women."
Richard Hokenson, chief economist for Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Securities Corporation, has scanned United States labor statistics for the past four decades. He has come up with the hypothesis that a major American "sea change" is afoot: A demographically pivotal exodus of women from the work force is causing the decline of the two-paycheck family after a two-decade rise, and the reappearance of the one-paycheck family as the fastest-growing household unit.
Based on Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) figures showing employment dropoff among women ages 20 to 24, Mr. Hokenson's ideas were played up in a story in a recent issue of Barron's magazine. The implications for the economy would be "profound," the article notes, identifying a "shocking about-face" in the "yet unnoticed" trend "that seemed unthinkable just a short while ago."
If read his way, the statistics might signal a return to a 1950s lifestyle, in which former careerists return to such time-consuming activities as cooking (eating away at restaurant profits), comparison shopping (undercutting pricey namebrands), and reining in purchases on everything from houses to cars. Tough labor market
John Stinson, a labor economist at the BLS who has calculated the labor participation rates of women of childbearing ages (20 to 44), says he agrees with Hokenson that there has been a drop-off beginning about 1988 - and that the drop-off has been most significant among younger women ages 20 to 24. But he says the decline is not precipitous, adding that a tough labor market in recent years could account for part of the decline.
"It seems significant that we have definitely turned a corner," Mr. Stinson says. "But as to how long this change lasts and whether it continues downward is hard to know."
Other articles in the business press over the past year have identified the "women returning home" phenomenon. The decline in interest rates, most say, has been a major factor, allowing significant numbers of one-paycheck families to again qualify for a 30-year home loan. It has also freed up mothers and women of child-bearing age to return home.
"We are seeing the re-emergence of the American family with more time than money, rather than more money than time," Hokenson says in an interview. Those who are not buying their first home are refinancing their largest monthly obligation (mortgage) - not to finance travel and purchases but to make lifestyle changes. The trend is even stronger in Europe, he adds.
Hokenson formed his hypothesis after following the drop-off in growth stock companies of the 1980s - such companies as Kelloggs, Phillip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, and Nabisco. "This movement is and will continue to have a significant impact on the distribution channels for consumer goods and services as these income-sensitive households widen and intensify their search for values," Hokenson says.
Supporting this hypothesis, he says, are these statistics:
* According to BLS figures from 1950 to 1993, the number of 20 to 24-year-old women with …