Although women seem as committed as ever to holding jobs, they
are no longer piling into the labor force as rapidly as they did in
the 1970s and 1980s.
The change of pace, which is just beginning to show up in Labor
Department data, suggests that the number of women working or
job-hunting is being held down by such developments as the incipient
national recession and a rising number of births, which are keeping
many new mothers temporarily at home.
Some economists and sociologists contend that women, as a group,
might be approaching the upper limit of participation in the work
force, one imposed by a society that gives women primary
responsibility for children yet does not furnish adequate child
Most of these experts agree that the ceiling, if it indeed
exists, will rise again, perhaps by the end of the decade, if the
child-care barrier and other issues are resolved.
``The pattern is changing; the rip-roaring increases in labor
participation among women have indeed finally leveled off,'' said
Thomas Plewes, an associate commissioner of the Labor Department's
Bureau of Labor Statistics.
``Is this permanent? Our best thinking would say that it is
not. Women in the labor force behave more like their fathers than
The milder growth rate might have a silver lining, perhaps
helping to reverse a 20-year trend in which the median incomes of
all workers have failed to keep up with inflation.
``If women enter the work force in smaller numbers, labor could
become a scarcer commodity, one that can't be thrown away or
underpriced so easily,'' said Frank Levy, a University of Maryland
labor economist who specializes in income trends.
For nearly two years, the percentage of all of the nation's
working-age women actually in the labor force - that is, the women
holding jobs or actively seeking them - has leveled off at around
57.7 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
Not since the early 1970s has the rate held steady for so long.
By comparison, 75.6 percent of working-age men are in the labor
While the participation rate of men has been dropping very
gradually, that of women has climbed sharply since 1960, when it was
about 37 percent.
More significant than the overall figure, the labor articipation
rates for women in the two largest age groups - 25 to 34 years old
and 35 to 44 - have risen since 1986 at a much slower pace than in
the previous 10 years.
In the 25-to-34 age group, for example, the participation rate
is 73. …