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PAUSING AND THE ECONOMY

Another powerful reason many have argued we must keep women engaged in the workforce has less to do with social politics and more to do with economics. If you’ve taken a basic economics course you know that an economy can’t grow if there aren’t enough workers to do the work. After World War II, we had tons of young men returning to the workforce, but by the mid-1970s we’d tapped out on potential new workers. Sure, we could have relied on immigrants, as we had since this country was founded, but the recession in the early 1970s caused many Americans to fight against expanding our immigrant population (a fight that, as we know, continues today). So where was our country supposed to get new workers? Women!

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There is no debate amongst economists that the single greatest benefit to our economy in the past thirty years has been the rise of women in the workforce. Since 1979, the proportion of working-age women with a full-time job has surged to 40.7 percent from 28.6 percent. A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research84 says that if, over the last thirty years, women hadn’t been in the workforce in such great numbers, the economy would be about 11 percent smaller. And according to the World Economic Forum, if women’s working patterns were more like men’s (that is, with the majority working full-time rather than only 48 percent working full-time), our economy would increase by another 9 percent.85 No wonder the notion of pausing is anathema to those who want to see the American economy thrive.

Sadly, female workforce participation in the United States has stagnated since the 1990s. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), between 1991 and 2014 the rate of workforce participation for women has remained at 74 percent. It actually rose to 77 percent during the mid-1990s before then dropping back down to 74 percent where it has stayed since.86 Meanwhile, as noted in chapter 1, we are seeing an ever-increasing rise in stay-at-home moms. Compare our female workforce participation trend with Norway (79 percent to 84 percent), Germany (72 percent to 82 percent), and Canada (76 percent to 82 percent) and you can sense that we are not moving ahead. Even Japan is outpacing us (65 percent to 75 percent). The average growth of women’s workforce participation for industrialized nations went from 67 percent to 79 percent. Why is the United States lagging behind? The OECD blames our lack of family-friendly policies.87

We need bright, talented women in the workforce so much that there is actually a whole new field of study called Womenomics devoted to figuring out how to get more women working. But we already know one powerful solution: Solve the caregiving dilemma.

How do we do that? By developing systems and structures that support the needs of parents. High-quality universal day care, paid parental leave, paid sick leave, onsite after-school programs that don’t require someone to chauffeur their children back and forth, flexible workplaces, bosses who value results and not “face time,” and re-entry programs that support those who have stepped out to care for their families, are just a few of the ways we can support mothers so they can work. Sure, women will benefit, but the biggest winner of all will be our economy.

The sad truth is, it’s unlikely we will see this anytime soon. Why? We have wrapped the notion of pausing under the cloak of “choice” and “privilege,” fueling class wars that keep us from focusing on the real problem at hand: public policies that don’t support families.

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