Work and Family Rise Among College Graduate Women

"During periods in 2000 when the prospects of a Bush victory were increasing, Bush-favored firms outperformed Gore-favored firms. Likewise, during periods in which prospects of a Gore victory were increasing, Gore-favored firms outperformed Bush-favored firms."

In The Long Road to the Fast Track: Career and Family (NBER Working Paper No. 10331), author Claudia Goldin examines the "long and winding road" that female college graduates took during the 20th century to reach the point where between 21 and 27 percent of those who graduated in the 1980s and 1990s achieved the goal of having both a career and a family. For mothers on the fast track, that percentage is about half the 45 to 55 percent of male college graduates with both a career and a family. For men, though, the proportion having both career and offspring is probably the lowest in history.

What has happened, Goldin explains, is that constraints on women's ability to work in fulfilling careers, first after marriage and later after bearing a child, have been loosened. Some changes were rooted in the labor market, including the growth of a wide variety of white-collar jobs, combined with the greater ability of women to hold certain professional jobs. Other changes were rooted in the schools, including the more labor-market relevant college majors taken by women -- beginning in the 1970s -- and their increased enrollment in professional schools.

Looking at various data sources, primarily for white women because proportionately fewer black women graduated from college Goldin finds five distinct "cohorts" of women in the 20th century. Each cohort made choices about career and family subject to different constraints. Each generation built on the successes and frustrations of the previous cohort.

The first cohort, graduating from college at the beginning of the 20th century up to the close of World War I, had either "family or career." More than 30 percent of this cohort never married by age 50, a rate that was four times that for their female counterparts who attended no college at all. About half of female college graduates did not have children, leading some contemporaries to ruminate about "race suicide." Most of these college women were from upper-class families. Most of those who did marry did not choose to work in the labor force for long after marriage. Even at around age 45, only 20 percent were in the paid labor force. By far the most popular occupation of these educated women was teaching. Others were librarians, social workers, and nurses, sometimes ranked as "higher callings." Given the constraints of their day, it was not easy to have family and career, Goldin notes.

The second cohort graduated from college mainly during the period between World War I and World War II. The fraction of this cohort who had not married by 50 years of age was about 15 to 20 percent, a decrease from the earlier cohort. About 30 to 35 percent of the married women in this group never had a child, also less than in the earlier cohort. About 25 percent of those who married were in the labor force at age 30 or so. As a group, therefore, they had "job then family," Goldin notes. Although teaching remained the most likely job, some female grads embarked on careers ranging from journalist to veterinarian, giving their mothers some vicarious satisfaction.

The third cohort graduated from college during the era of the "baby boom" - from the end of World War II to the turbulent and socially transforming era of the mid-1960s. This cohort married and had children at exceptionally high rates. Just 8 percent never married, a rate almost as low as for women who did not attend college at all. Just 10 percent of those who married did not have a child. About 17 percent of all these female college graduates were childless.

Further, Goldin continues, these women were married for the first time at an extremely young age by historical standards for college graduate women. Their median age at first marriage was less than 23. These college graduate women tended to have "family then job," putting priority and timing on having a family first. By age 45, 75 percent were in the labor force, considerably higher than for the previous cohort. But as a group, they became increasingly discontent with a labor market that offered college women little in the way of career advancement.

The fourth cohort, the "baby boom generation," graduated during the heady days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A substantial fraction put off marriage for several years, resulting in an average age at first marriage of 25 for those born in 1957. Only 12 percent were still single by their mid-40s. About 19 percent of those who married had not had a child by age 40; about 28 percent of the entire cohort remained childless at age 40. About 80 percent of those married were in the labor force at age 45, and were employed in a variety of professions, including those at the top of any occupational prestige scale, and not primarily in teaching. So, Goldin finds, this cohort gained in careers but lost in family. Only 13 to 18 percent achieved career and family by age 40. Some of those putting careers first, putting children on "hold," never had children, perhaps running out the "biological clock."

The final cohort considered, which graduated from college in the 1980s - the "decade of greed" - did try for both career and family. They achieved a slight decline in the fraction with no births - 26 percent by around age 40, rather than 28 percent for the previous cohort. Some 80 percent of those young and married women were working in diverse professions and occupations. So by age 40, about 21 to 27 percent had both work and a family, up from 13 to 18 percent for the previous cohort. Thus this most recent group, Goldin writes, "probably has had the greatest achievement in this regard among all cohorts of college graduate women in U.S. history."

-- David R. Francis

The Digest is not copyrighted and may be reproduced freely with appropriate attribution of source.
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