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.P