Dec 1, 2023 - Economy

College-educated mothers are working at record rates

Share of college-educated women with children under 10 who are employed
Data: Penn Wharton Budget Model; Chart: Axios Visuals

College-educated mothers stampeded into the workforce over the past 20 years, per a striking new paper.

Why it matters: No one expected this. Back in the 2000s, the big worry — epitomized in a 2003 New York Times article called "The Opt-Out Revolution" — was that high-achieving women were having kids and leaving the workforce.

  • (The mothers in your local Starbucks watching over toddlers? They have MBAs, wrote Lisa Belkin — setting off a wave of early aughts hand-wringing about feminism.)

Driving the news: Since then there's been a 10 percentage point increase in the employment rate of college-educated women with young children, finds research from Penn Wharton Budget Model at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • "You don't often see such striking trends in labor data," said lead researcher Alexander Arnon.

State of play: In the current post-pandemic "she-covery," the influx of women into the labor market grabbed a lot of attention, and rightly so — you can see the line surge up and to the right in the above chart.

  • But this new research digs deeper and finds that the post-pandemic labor market accelerated a phenomenon already underway for decades — though only for college-educated women.

The big picture: This is about big cultural changes. It's become far more socially acceptable — expected even — for women to keep working after having kids.

  • That's one reason the share of prime-age women (age 25-54) with a college degree has soared over the past 20 years to more than 45% from less than 30%.
  • Since those with college degrees are more likely to work than those without, this raised the overall employment rate of prime-age women by 2.7 percentage points since 2000, per Penn.
  • Meanwhile, Arnon pointed out, even before the pandemic juiced workplace flexibility for office workers to the nth degree, advances in tech made office work far more flexible.

Reality check: Mothers without degrees have seen progress stall out. In part, that's because it's harder to manage children with the kinds of jobs that don't require college — typically less flexible shift work where you can't run out to deal with a kid's doctor appointment or leave early for a soccer game. It could also be a choice to stay home.

  • Those jobs are also often without the kind of benefits (maternity leave, sick leave) that keep women attached to the workforce.
  • And women still lag men, of course: 95.4% of prime-age, college-educated men with young kids were employed in September 2023, compared with 96.6% in 2003.

The bottom line: Turns out some women can have it all — as stressful as that might be.

Go deeper