How Care for Elders, Not Children, Denies Women a Paycheck

Why did women’s rush into the work force stop? Policymakers have been vexed by the question for years. Social scientists have discussed the sudden stop for over a decade, in conferences and academic papers. Almost 12 years ago, I gave the topic a shot in the pages of The Times: why, after a five-decade rise, did the labor-force participation of women in the prime working years stall around the turn of the century?

After years of sometimes scorching debates, over whether highly educated women were “opting out”; whether the stop was merely temporary; and whether it responded to gender roles at home or labor-market conditions, the analysis seems to have converged on a sort of rough consensus: caring for children — overwhelmingly a woman’s task — ultimately took its toll.

Caring for children is, to be sure, a formidable barrier to women’s work. In developed countries where parental leave is guaranteed by law and governments ensure free child care, women work at a much higher rate than in the United States.

Still, the consensus is incomplete. It misses perhaps the most significant impediment to women’s continued engagement in the labor market, one that is getting tougher with each passing year: aging. Focused laserlike on child care, we haven’t noticed that the United States is walking into an elder-care crisis.

 Today almost 15 percent of the American population has reached the official retirement age, according to figures from the United Nations. That is about two percentage points higher than at its previous peak in 1995, just a few years before the labor supply of women in the prime working years — 25 to 54 years old — reached a plateau. It means that for every four Americans of working age, there is one of retirement age, the World Bank says.

Lots of these older Americans — 14 million, according to Paul Osterman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management — can’t live independently and care for themselves.

 – New York Times