Did Risk of Divorce Drive Boomer Women to Increase Their Education?

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A new working paper from authors Raquel Fernandez and Joyce Cheng Wong highlights the stark differences in the lives of two generations of American women: those born in 1935 and those born just 20 years later in 1955. The authors found that education, wage structure and divorce were the main causes to changes in labor force participation.

From the abstract:

Women born in 1935 went to college significantly less than their male counterparts and married women’s labor force participation (LFP) averaged 40% between the ages of thirty and forty. The cohort born twenty years later behaved very differently. The education gender gap was eliminated and married women’s LFP averaged 70% over the same ages… We find that the higher probability of divorce and the changes in wage structure faced by the 1955 cohort are each able to explain, in isolation, a large proportion (about 60%) of the observed changes in female LFP.

Between 1935 and 1955, women tripled their presence at universities. Divorce rates also rose, which hurt women more than men, since it was the women who usually ended up with children, putting them under more financial and emotional stress. This heavier burden, the authors argue, also drove women to increased levels of education, to make themselves more robust candidates in the workforce.

The increased probability of divorce faced by the 1955 cohort, in particular, is a key driver of the increase in women’s work and it produced the desired asymmetric reaction in the education choices of men and women, helping to reduce the education gender gap significantly. Furthermore, changes in divorce probabilities alone account for around 60% of the LFP increase during the ages of 25-40 for married women.

Despite the economic and educational strides made by the 1955 generation, the irony is that most of them were not better off, and some (the least educated) were in fact worse off economically than their 1935 counterparts.

Conditional on education level, men greatly benefited from the changing economic environment, whereas both high school and college women lost from those changes. However, once we allow female preferences for work to change, college women also enjoyed small welfare gains in the 1955 world. High-school women on the other hand remained worse off. An ex ante welfare analysis (i.e., unconditional on education) revealed that both women and men fared better in 1955. Men’s welfare gains, however, are substantially larger than those of women reflecting, in large part, the asymmetric gender costs of divorce.~

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  1. Chris says:

    Did they consider which was the cause and which was the effect?

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    • Greg says:

      Indeed – I’m sure there were plenty of marriages where the woman, once given the (more socially acceptable) option to divorce, definitely preferred leaving her husband even given the monetary disadvantage.

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  2. Tom says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Greg says:

      Your “basic problems” are only basic problems if one accepts your premises:

      - women don’t want to enter the workplace (hence must be “pushed” into it)

      - men simultaneously don’t want to be bachelors (they too must be “pushed”) and also don’t want anything out of marriage except offspring.

      Of course if one accepts those premises, one ends up concluding that people act a lot like primitive societies. It’s a circular argument.

      Of course, if you call women in the workplace a “disastrous consequence for society”, then I suspect you would rather be living in a primitive patriarchal society – but one, apparently, where government should enforce relationships between individuals (since evolving social norms are “failing” to handle that enforcement for you).

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      • Tom says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Greg says:

        I appreciate your willingness to discuss your position rationally. But I have to say that I simply fail to believe almost every sentence you write. Clearly we have different assumptions about the world.

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      • Tom says:

        Of course, this is why I wrote my comment in the first place.

        You (like most anyone else) are a perfect product of our declining civilization, in complete denial about the unintended consequences of its “social engineering”.

        You are correct: assumptions about the world is exactly what I was trying to make you question – it is where the rabbit hole starts…

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  3. EP says:

    Maybe if the family courts weren’t rigged to steal children from fathers, women wouldn’t be so stressed by the financial and emotional burden??

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  4. Quinton says:

    “Despite the economic and educational strides made by the 1955 generation, the irony is that most of them were not better off, and some (the least educated) were in fact worse off economically than their 1935 counterparts.”

    These results are interesting but I think this statement goes entirely too far. The welfare analysis is entirely based on consumption levels, which while important, are probably a poor substitute for utility in dealing with a situation such as divorce and family dynamics. I’m sure the current Population Survey and the NLSY are wonderful but I’ve never seen a survey I trust to capture the effect of leaving a miserable marriage.

    Also, what about domestic violence? Or the utility from independence? I’m not closed to the idea but it’s going to take quite a paper to convince me women were better off being born in 1935 than 1955

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  5. Ahmed Zghari says:

    Interesting, but does not give a full picture.

    The financial meltdown of the 1970′s that witnessed significant hikes in food and energy costs led to the necessity of women having to enter the workplace on mass to balance the household budgets of the time.

    The result was an era of labor law changes allowing women greater freedoms at work and the knock on impact was the normalization of two income families. We have never recovered from the tailspin effects of two people in one family going out to work; the housing bubble of 2007/08 has its roots in the creation of two income families, which some call the baby boomer effect.

    The 1980′s/90′s race for working opportunities to keep up with every two income family would be a major factor in influencing education rates of women.

    There is no argument here for women vs men working to provide for the family. Either is equally qualified as far as I am concerned.

    The problem is that a wage race was created which forced couples to have to work; and ultimately two people working excessively to keep afloat establishes relationship and financial problems that will drive many apart.

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    • jennifer says:

      I could be completely wrong about this, but I have a very vague memory of reading that in the 50s and 60s, when men were the primary breadwinners for their families across all economic spheres, wages were higher because companies knew that most homes had to depend on one income.

      When women entered the workforce and companies paid them less, this led to a decrease in wages for both genders because it was taken for granted that 2 people working should be enough to have a good standard of living. The reason families today need 2 incomes to survive is therefore related to women entering the workforce en masse in the 70s.

      Does this sound familiar or did I hallucinate about this?

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      • James says:

        I think you hallucinated, because companies don’t pay wages based on the needs of the employee. The primary factor is supply and demand, which is why a good software engineer, for instance, commands higher pay than an assembly-line worker.

        It’s also quite possible to live a good 50s-style standard of living on one income today: the extra income of a two-earner household mostly goes to pay for things that didn’t exist then, or things where expectations have increased. Compare the size & amenities of a typical 50s-built house with one of today, for instance.

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  6. Eric M. Jones says:

    I think the paper has many holes (on very brief review):

    I don’t believe the overwhelming majority of couples think they will divorce. Ahhh, youthful innocence…
    I think the availability of “the Pill” is key.
    I think that womens’ rights is generally under-appreciate.
    I think that as time goes on the equality of men and women becomes very much equal except in certain rare jobs…”wet nurse and sperm donor”…and where lots of muscle is needed.

    No surprise to me, and I welcome it.

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  7. BikerDad says:

    Gee, ya think that maybe the significantly increased ability to control the if/when of children might have something to do with the difference? And might the greatly reduced amount of time necessary to “operate” the home also play in to it? (It must be noted that Alva J. Fisher and Thomas Midgley did far more to liberate American women than any of the modern feminists.)

    Nahhh, that would make too much sense.

    Last, to speak of the “risk” of divorce for the person who CHOOSES divorce is highly distortional. In the real world, there is a distinct difference in meaning between “risk” and “probability”, i.e. the connotations are very different. Perhaps in academia they are used interchangeably. To see the problem with the study author’s construction, simply replace the word “risk” with “opportunity”. (makes perfect sense in Chinese).

    The question then becomes “Are women preparing themselves through education and in the workplace to take advantage of the opportunity of divorce?

    hmmmm…. (ask that, and you’ll likely get some serious incoming from both traditionalists and feminists) Between risk and opportunity lies the far more neutral term, “probability”

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  8. aganuls says:

    Conditional on education level, men greatly benefited from the changing economic environment, whereas both high school and college women lost from those changes. However, once we allow female preferences for work to change, college women also enjoyed small welfare gains in the 1955 world. Swiss watch trends is today’s jewelries fashions

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