As a child in the 1960s, I knew only two families who had working mothers. In one case, the parents were divorced (also rare), and in the other, the mother had an interesting job in publishing that she loved. Though some women had trained for careers, including law and medicine, the trend was overwhelmingly to quit working after marriage. In those days, the solidity of the middle class meant families could afford to own a house and raise a family on only one income. But it was due to more than economic trends: a woman’s place was in the home, tending the children, and practicing the domestic arts.
The second wave of feminism (the first was the struggle for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century), ignited partly by Betty Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique,” educated our generation about the great divide between the sexes, especially in the workplace. The Baby Boomers, the first generation to feel the impact, went to work in numbers previously unheard of. Many women found they enjoyed it, even though things like equal pay and equitable sharing of household duties have been slow to catch up. Members of this demographic, one of the largest in the country, are now entering the 60s and 70s.
As a group, women are living longer, and spending more of those years in robust good health than ever before. Advances in health care and disease prevention are chiefly responsible for these factors. Many people know more about self-care, and are more likely to exercise, less likely to smoke, and more aware of good nutrition than our mothers. Among the many ways we differ from our mothers is how we approach the issue of work and all its aspects. Women are more likely to work, remain in the workforce longer, and wait longer to retire. The nature of the kind of work we do has changed, too. Women are more likely to have careers, rather than jobs. As marriage and motherhood have been delayed, women have had more time to establish these careers early in life. Women who work when they are young are more likely to continue working later in life, even if they do take time off from the workforce while raising their children.
Data from the Social Security Administration confirms that while a third of all people take their benefits as soon as possible, more are waiting until their mid-60s or later. The number has jumped from 17.5 percent in 1996 to 28.1 percent in 2009 for both men and women.
The New York Times reports that our career paths are more and more resembling men’s:
“The arc of women’s working lives is changing — reaching higher levels when they’re younger and stretching out much longer — according to two new analyses of census, earnings and retirement data that provide the most comprehensive look yet at women’s career paths.”
Women are working more at almost every stage of their lives. Because childbirth has been delayed, they also work longer after entering the workforce before taking a break. There is one place where there is a dip: while women try to negotiate the work/family balance by continuing to work after having kids, and they remain in the workforce for a while, after the second child they choose to stay home, and stay home for longer than previously. This is because of the difficulties of finding child-care, and the high demands and long days expected in the American workplace; lack of flexibility about working from home; responsibilities, like the need to care for elderly parents; and the paucity of paid parental leave and part-time work .
But they still choose to go back, in greater numbers than before. Later, women who say they liked their jobs are less likely to want to retire, which is easy to understand. But even those who had relatively boring jobs say they sometimes choose to remain in them or go back to work doing something else (one woman The Times interviewed is a barista and loves it) because they have grown used to being active and feel restless.