Working wives and mothers :
what happens to family life?
The changing work role of women has caused
much concern about the survival of the family;
most women can mix work with marriage
and motherhood and handle or better share
the resulting household responsibilities
SAR A. LEVITAN AND RICHARD S . BELOUS
American families seem to be besieged from all sides .
Divorce rates are climbing ; marriage is being postponed, if not rejected ; fertility rates are falling ; increasing numbers of children are being raised only by their mothers, either because of divorce or because their parents were never married ; and wives and mothers in record numbers are rushing out of the home into the labor market . What is the effect of these occurrences on
the institution of the family? Does the "economic independence" of working women influence their decisions to either begin or end a marriage or to rear children?
Too frequently, the changing work patterns of women
are confused with causing the deterioration of family
life . Careful analysis of family-related data show that although American families are changing, they are not eroding .
The fact that women are working in record numbers
is not a new phenomenon . What has changed are the
conditions and places in which they work . Many tasks
which were once performed inside the home are now
the source of jobs held by women outside the home.
World War II stands as a major breaking point in fe-
Sar A. Levitan is director of the Center for Social Policy Studies, George Washington University, and Richard S. Belous is executive director of the National Council on Employment Policy . This article is adapted from their book, What's Happening to the American Family?, to be published by The Johns Hopkins University . Press, Fall 1981 .
male work patterns . The war effort's high demand for
labor and patriotic fervor induced many women to join
the labor force, boosting the size of the female work
force by 57 percent during the war . Some analysts predicted that after the war family work patterns would return to the previous norm . They reasoned that rising productivity and economic growth would continue to
boost the income earned by husbands, thus reducing
the need for another check and inducing wives to return
to their homes . This, of course, did not happen, as
economists failed to consider the nonpecuniary attractions of work and the appetite for more income . Since World War II, American households have
shown a strong propensity to increase their consumption of goods and services . Many wives joined the work force to finance these upward consumption patterns .
Like the mechanical rabbit leading the greyhounds
around the racetrack, these aspirations have consistently
stayed ahead of rising productivity, often requiring another paycheck in the chase for the "good life ." With inflationary pressures and slow growth in productivity
during the 1970's and early 1980's leading to sluggish
gains and even occasional declines in real earnings, another check became necessary to maintain the standard of living, or growing consumption expectations, to
which the families had become accustomed . By 1980, 3
of 5 families had at least two household members in the
labor force-in most cases, the husband and the wife .
Work, marriage, and motherhood
Some futurologists have assumed that the vast upsurge of women in the work force may portend a rejection of marriage . Many women, according to this hypothesis, would rather work than marry . This "independence effect" would reduce the probability that women would marry as they are better able to support
themselves . The converse of this concern is that the
prospects of becoming a multi-paycheck household
could encourage marriages . Data show that economic
downturns tend to postpone marriage because the
parties cannot afford to establish a family or are concerned about rainy days ahead . As the economy reemployment,...
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