What to Read: Claudia Goldin’s Career and Family

A better battery is an excellent gift, but for the gift that never needs recharging, a book is always a great idea. So this week Joy asked us to recommend a book. Again, this would be great as a gift or for yourself!

My recommendation is a very new book: Claudia Goldin’s Career and Family, which just came out this month. Confession: the book is so new, that I’ve only read about half of it so far! But this book is, as they say, self-recommending.

Goldin has spent almost her entire academic career studying the history of women’s participation in the US labor force. I think it’s fair to say that there is no person living today that knows more about the subject, possibly no one ever. This book is her attempt to sum up much of her research into a cohesive narrative about the changes in women’s labor force participation throughout the 20th century.

Her 2006 AEA Ely Lecture, “The Quiet Revolution,” was an earlier attempt to explain these long changes, and it is highly readable still today. Her 2014 AEA Presidential Address, “A Grand Gender Convergence,” is also excellent (watch the video of it too!). But this book brings all the ideas together into a complete narrative, tracking five cohorts of women and their experience in the labor force from 1900 to 2000. The last of these five cohorts matches the title of her book, the generation of women that entered the labor force since 1980 and now have a reasonable chance of achieving both an career and a family, rather than having to chose between the two.

This does not mean, and certainly Goldin would not say, that the journey is over and all is well for women today. Goldin focuses primarily on college graduates in this story, since they are the group most well-positioned to achieve the goal of having a career and a family. Obviously there are still challenges, and Goldin spends some time discussing one that the COVID pandemic revealed but was always there: the challenge of finding affordable childcare.

If you want a taste of the book, you can read or watch her 2020 Feldstein Lecture, “Journey Across a Century of Women.” But really the story is so complex that it does take a book to explain it all.

I think for most of us, our vague understanding of the history is that WWII changed it all. Women had to work in the factories since the men were away at war, and, presto!, after that came the women’s liberation movement and the rest is history.

Not so fast. Women had been participating in the labor force before the war, and indeed participation in the labor force had been rising for decades. There is no really obvious break in that trend around WWII. Goldin even wrote the classic paper suggesting WWII had no long-run impact on women’s participation in the workforce (though she has dialed back that strong claim in recent years with better data, and she is absolutely someone who follows the data).

Instead, the story involves changes in cultural attitudes, changes in the structure of the economy and workforce, changes in technology, and much more. One really important change was the change in attitudes of young women themselves. Here’s a very stark chart from her 2006 Ely Lecture.

Notice that in 1967, less than 1/3 of young women expected they would by employed at age 35. But just a few year later by the late 1970s, over 80% of young women expected to be employed at age 35. This is certainly a dramatic change in expectations! But it’s also an extremely important change. If a young woman doesn’t expect to be employed at age 35, what will she do? She will spend most of her time looking for a husband. On the other hand, if she does expect to be employed, she will focus on her education, how that education will lead to a career, and starting out that career.

Here’s another chart which drives home the same point (also from “The Quiet Revolution,” but it’s discussed in her book too). Women who were born in 1960 delayed marriage by roughly 4 years compared to their 1950 counterparts. This may seem small, but it’s actually huge. Women born in 1950 and earlier were essentially getting married right out of college at age 22-23, and probably started having children right away. Very hard to start a career in that case! But if you wait until 25 or 26 to get married, and also likely wait until 25 or 26 to start having children, you have at least started to establish yourself in your career. Coming back to the labor force is challenge, to be sure, after having children, but it’s much easier than if you wait under you are almost 30 to first enter the labor force after having a few children.

There is much more in the book, and it is wonderfully written. If you aren’t yet convinced, listen to her Conversation with Tyler. This is the perfect gift for everyone on your holiday list, both women and men!

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