Among Recent Moms, More Educated Most Likely to Work

By: BRIAN KNOP, US Census Bureau

The “opt out” revolution of high-earning women exiting the labor force to have babies, widely publicized in the early 2000s, may have been overstated.

This phenomenon of opting out is actually not widespread. In fact, recently released historical fertility tables show an increase in labor force participation rates in the last decade among women ages 16 to 50 who gave birth within the last 12 months.

Among women with a graduate or professional degree who gave birth in the past year, only 18.1% were not in the labor force, compared to 48.9% of women with a high school degree or less.

The Education Factor

The increase in labor force participation of women with a recent birth may be explained by trends in educational attainment: a growing share of women who have completed four or more years of college and people who are highly educated are more likely to be in the labor force.

Using data from the 2017 American Community Survey (ACS), the figure below explores the relationship between education and labor force participation among women with a recent birth.

The labor force is made up of the employed and unemployed. ACS respondents who were employed indicate whether they were at their job or on leave (e.g., annual leave or parental leave) the previous week. The unemployed are those who were jobless but actively searching for employment. 

New Moms and Work

While many women with a recent birth are in the labor force (employed and working, employed but on leave, or unemployed), there are educational differences in labor force participation within this group.

Highly educated women with a graduate or professional degree who gave birth recently are more likely to be employed — either working or on leave — and less likely to be unemployed or out of the labor force entirely, compared to all other women with a recent birth. 

More than 4 out of 5 (81.9%) women with a graduate or professional degree who gave birth in the last 12 months were in the labor force: 71.2% were working, 9.2% were on leave, and 1.5% were unemployed.

Among women with a graduate or professional degree who gave birth in the past year, only 18.1% were not in the labor force, compared to 48.9% of women with a high school degree or less.

Among women with a bachelor’s degree who gave birth in the past year, 60.9% were employed and at work, 8.2% were employed but on leave, 2.3% were unemployed, and 28.6% were not in the labor force.

These findings show that most women with a recent birth are in the labor force — especially those with an advanced degree. 

To learn more about women’s fertility in the United States, see the fertility table package, which includes fertility measures such as childlessness and children ever born to women by demographic characteristics.

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