This is the first post in a three-part series examining the changing work roles of wives and husbands.
The labor force participation rate for men and the number of hours worked by men have both declined over the past four decades. Conversely, the fraction of women participating in the labor force and the number of hours worked by women have increased.
This blog post series, based on an article in The Regional Economist, examines these trends further, focusing on married couples. Specifically, Research Fellow Limor Golan and former Senior Research Associate Usa Kerdnunvong focused on prime-age (ages 25-54) married males because of the group’s traditional role of family breadwinner. They noted: “These men are typically attached to the labor market and work full time.”
Golan and Kerdnunvong showed that the labor force participation rate for prime-age married men has declined from more than 97 percent in 1970 to below 93 percent, beginning in 2011. Over the same period, the fraction of prime-age husbands in the labor force working part time has risen from less than 1.5 percent to about 4 percent.
Married women in the labor force have also experienced a shift in part-time work, going from about 26 percent working part time in 1970 to about 22 percent working part time after 2000.
The authors gave several potential reasons behind the shifts in labor force participation and hours worked for married people. For one, they explained that men have seen a decrease in demand for their labor, especially in the manufacturing sector. As the authors wrote: “This decline in demand is related to skill bias, technological changes and offshoring.”
At the same time, the married female labor supply has increased partially due to women increasing their education and the increase in relative wages in high-skill occupations.
Golan and Kerdnunvong noted that the wage gap between men and women has declined. As women earn higher incomes, married couples have more of an incentive for the husband to work fewer hours or to stay home.
The authors also pointed out that some wives may have higher incentive to work if their husbands work in low-skilled jobs or in declining industries. Golan and Kerdnunvong wrote: “With women’s strides in education, they can provide insurance within the household by working more when men lose their jobs or when the wages offered to men are low.”
A similar motivation may exist simply because the risk of lower wages for husbands is present. The authors noted: “Wives may decide to work outside the home when there is just a threat of unemployment or a decline in their husbands’ earnings.”
For husbands working part time, having wives earning incomes can allow them to spend more time searching for better-paying jobs or acquiring skills for such jobs or even altogether new occupations. Golan and Kerdnunvong wrote: “Thus, in households in which wives work full time, husbands might be able to be choosier in accepting jobs—they can afford to be less willing to take full-time jobs for low pay or jobs that may not offer good promotion prospects or other nonpecuniary qualities.”
The next post in this series will explore the changes in characteristics of households in which prime-age men were not participating in the labor force or worked part time between 1970 and 2015.