Did Someone Say "Opt-out?"

The Washington Post and New York Times are having a little spat today about "opting-out." The Post ran a front-page story by Donna St. George proclaiming, "obsession with high-achieving professional mothers sidelining careers for family life is largely beside the point." The Times' David Leonhardt jumped in to defend his colleague Lisa Belkin, author of the original, blockbuster Times Magazine feature on the "opt-out revolution." The opt-out trend is real, Leonhardt writes:

The Labor Department numbers, for instance, show the percentage of women 25 to 34 in the labor force peaked at 77 percent in 1999. This percentage had risen in every decade from the 1940s through the 1990s. But it has stopped rising. It was 75 percent last month and has not been above 76 percent since 2001.

If you focus on the highly educated women who have been the subject of much of the discussion, you see something similar. A paper in the American Economic Review last year by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz reported that earlier this decade 60.3 percent of female Harvard graduates in their mid-30s were working full time. In the 1990s, the equivalent number was 63.5 percent. The share of women who had one child and were working rose, while the share with two or more children who were working fell. The overall shift is hardly radical, but there does seem to be a slight one.

The thing is, St. George doesn't claim that no women are opting-out. Rather, she's correcting the myth that the majority of opt-outers are privileged women: According to the Census, stay-at-home moms are less educated and less wealthy than working moms and are more likely to live in poverty. In other words, as I argued in a recent piece, choosing not to work leaves women (and their children) at high risk of financial hardship. That's why during this recession, many stay-at-home moms are returning to the job market.

Leonhardt suggests that instead of arguing about opting out, we focus on pressuring companies to make part-time work more viable, for both men and women. This is the Womenomics stance -- and sure, workplace flexibility is a good thing. But worrying so much about what's happening to office workers, the kind of people whose jobs are portable, sidelines what's going on in other sectors of our economy, where women are stuck in "pink collar" service jobs that often have no benefits, irregular hours, and low pay. Women are working, and many of them need basic benefits before they can worry about extra perks.

--Dana Goldstein

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