The 9-to-5 jobs are being dropped and experts are searching for answers
Mari Villaluna never wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. The 36-year-old spent a decade building up a résumé as a career counselor and tutor in San Francisco schools after serving in the U.S. Army.
She made about $42,000 at an employment agency and was regularly sought out by potential employers. After she gave birth to her first child last year, she drew a star on her calendar to mark the day she was supposed to return to work.
"I had a very established career," Villaluna said. Then, in September, her plan to get a state subsidy for child care fell through, and the single mom couldn't afford to spend thousands of dollars on private day care. The day she gave up her beloved 9-to-5 job, she cried for hours.
Villaluna's decision offers a clue to an economic mystery: Why are American women disappearing from the workforce?
The answer could have stark implications for future growth.
For half a century after World War II, women barreled into the job market in numbers that surged higher every year. They drove most of the rise in real household income for decades and boosted the economy's total output at a time when men were dropping out of the job market.
Then, all of a sudden, they stopped. Since 2000, the share of women working in their prime earning years has declined.
In 1948, just over a third of prime-age women had a job or sought one. By 1999, after five decades of unrelenting progress, 76.8 percent of those women were in the workforce.
Since then, the participation rate slipped to 74.3 percent, and the number of women not looking for work grew by more than 12,000.
Some see the abrupt reversal as an unsurprising result of more than two decades without any major legislation making it easier for new parents to take time off or pay for child care. Any number of articles and analyses have pondered the effects of a stubborn gender pay gap, inflexible schedules that keep women out of the executive suite and an undercurrent of discrimination that, at its worst, leaves women vulnerable to regular harassment.
But top economists now are pointing to another explanation. Women seem to be leaving the workforce for some of the same reasons that men are: Middle-class jobs are in short supply and working at the bottom pays less than it used to.
Single women without children drove most of the downturn in women's workforce participation from 1999 through 2007, according to a study by professor Robert Moffitt of Johns Hopkins University.
Those women don't have to care for a child and they aren't counting on a partner to provide for them. They are, Moffitt said, "the same as a lot of men … even though it sounds a little strange to make that analogy."
They are also staring down the same long odds as men who lost their footing in an economy in which low-skill jobs that pay well have all been shipped abroad or obliterated by technology.
The collapse of blue-collar jobs for American men is well-known, thanks in part to the movement that powered President Trump's election. A peak of 97.4 percent prime-age men were in the labor force in 1953. That share declined for decades, plunged during the financial crisis and hit 88.5 percent last year.
But women-dominated fields for low-skill workers also are in a rut. Wages barely budged for women with a high school degree or less over the last decade, while college-educated women continued to get decent raises.
In home health care services, social assistance and laundry services — three industries that are heavily reliant on women — hourly pay for rank-and-file workers has increased by less than $2, in today's dollars, since 1990.
Villaluna's paycheck fell short of her aspirations. After giving birth, she put her monthly take-home, around $3,000, on one side of a sheet of paper, and on the other wrote down all of her expenses, plus the roughly $2,500 she expected to pay for child care. She'd wind up behind by $15 a month.
Over the last few years, things had gotten better for Villaluna, but never by much. She made $18 an hour, then $20, and then plateaued. "I was definitely inching. It was always just a little more," she said.
Across the country, parents' hourly spending on child care has shot up since the mid-1990s, prompting many families to ditch professionals and watch their kids themselves, according to a recent analysis by a Princeton researcher.
Day care in San Francisco costs up to $2,400 a month on average, according to the California Child Development Administrators Association. That means for someone working full time in a job that pays the city's $13-an-hour minimum wage, a year of child care can cost about $1,700 more than a year's salary, before taxes.
The rise in child-care costs drove down women's employment 5 percent from 1990 to 2010, according to the Princeton research. That may be a sign that the social and legal changes that were pushing women to work aren't as powerful as they used to be.
Lorie James ended her 39-year career because she was too tired to keep fighting for recognition.
She started working for Los Angeles County in 1990. A decade later, she received her first career boost, then earned a bachelor's and received several promotions. But after a manager who championed her skills left, her career hit roadblocks. She thought there might be bias involved, said something to the boss but left it at that in hopes her career would again move forward.
When it didn't, she left and has been searching for a new job for a year.
"I am not ready to give up working," she said.
Among developed countries, the U.S. went from having the sixth highest share of women at work in 1999 to the 23rd highest in 2015, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
"We got the low-hanging fruit. Now women are participating at much higher levels, so the progress has slowed down," said Sandra Black, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, who was on President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers from 2015 through 2017.
Discrimination and flattening wages have always weighed on women, Black said. "Now the progress that we had seen before in improving women's participation is no longer sufficient to offset these negative forces."