At-home moms help change America's work roles again

Staying Ahead

July 30, 2000|By JANE BRYANT QUINN

Here's one of prosperity's interesting side effects. A higher proportion of young women - especially higher-earning women - appear to be choosing motherhood over career.

It's a basic budget rule. When couples feel they need two incomes to survive, more moms lean toward full-time, paying jobs. When they can manage on just one income (or one-and-a-half), more moms lean toward part-time work or full-time home and child care. A few dads do, too, but it's predominantly moms.

Many mothers, of course, choose to remain in the paying work force. Of those 36 to 40, more than 40 percent work all year in full-time jobs - double the number 30 years ago. Other mothers have always stayed home or chosen flexible "mommy track" jobs.

But there's a palpable shift, especially among women in their late 30s. As did their mothers, they're shifting to more traditional roles - investing in their husbands' careers rather than their own.

But unlike their mothers (and thanks to the feminist achievement), they don't feel trapped. They're sure that they can return to good jobs if they ever want to.

I asked economics Professor Diane Macunovich of Barnard College in New York City to look at the data on women and jobs. It's too early to reach definitive conclusions, she says, but the changes all run in the same direction:

Young men's real wages are going up. In particular, they're going up in relation to what their parents earn. This gives them more confidence that they'll reach or exceed their parents' standard of living, Macunovich says.

It also gives couples more confidence that they can rely on the husband's earning power. (In only a small percentage of couples do women's careers take the lead.)

Young women's fertility rates have tended to follow the changes in young men's relative wages, an interesting factoid if ever there was one. And yes, for twentysomethings, fertility is up.

Macunovich isn't suggesting the kind of frolic that instantly leaps to mind. She thinks that higher male earning power leads to earlier marriage and then to babies (whew).

Among mothers 36 to 40, more are opting for part-time jobs. During those years, which may coincide with the birth of a second child, more are leaving the labor force altogether.

The women most likely to go part-time are those who earn the highest hourly pay. "Many economists thought that higher female earning power would kill off the family," Macunovich says. "Instead, women are using their earnings to buy back personal time."

To keep them, even part-time, employers have to offer them flexible schedules, telecommuting or shorter hours. Joanne Brundage, a former postal worker and founder of a support group, Mothers & More, in Elmhurst, Ill., calls it "sequencing" - switching in and out of the work force depending on your time of life.

Still, homemaking remains a luxury purchase. Among mothers with lower hourly pay, rising numbers are accepting full-time jobs. They can't afford to stay home, even if they'd like to.

A growing proportion of women are choosing classic "women's work," such as nursing and teaching. It's probably no coincidence that these jobs provide many part-time options.

When mothers first think of leaving paying work, they often hesitate. "I will probably continue to say that I'm a writer, even if I stay home," says business reporter Angela Geiser, 31, of Temecula, Calif.

That sounds familiar to New Yorker Cynthia Ryan, 38, who abandoned her jewelry business after her daughter was born and now hosts a weekly mothers' group. "We all found that the transition from work to home takes six months psychologically," she says.

Joyce Ravelo-Conde, 35, of San Diego says it wasn't easy to downsize to her husband's $50,000 salary, but she doesn't regret it. "It was hard to think of who I'd leave my kids with and what values they'd pick up."

None of these moms worries about dependency. Besides earning power, they have more financial savvy than older generations did. Many tend to have IRAs or 401(k)s from a former job. Joint bank accounts are the norm, as are joint decisions about savings and insurance.

If today's at-home moms return to paying jobs, employers will want them, says Cornell University sociology Professor Phyllis Moen. There's going to be such a labor shortage, as older boomers phase down, that employers will reach out.

Maybe this is the generation that has it all.

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