Washington, D.C. — A new report released today by the Center for American Progress and the Center for Economic and Policy Research puts a dollar value on the economic importance of women’s rising work hours since 1979. According to the report, gross domestic product, or GDP, was roughly 11 percent higher in 2012 because women’s employment patterns changed over the past three decades. In today’s dollars, this translates to more than $1.7 trillion in output—roughly equivalent to combined U.S. spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in 2012.
“While much research has focused on how women’s rising work hours have affected women and the economic well-being of their families, our paper explores how much women’s earnings have strengthened the middle class and the overall economy,” said Heather Boushey, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the report. “The finding that the movement of women out of the home has significantly affected GDP and the middle class makes the need to restructure our employment standards for the reality of the 21st century workforce even more urgent.”
Over the past three decades, there has been a steady rise in the share of women, especially mothers, in the workforce. “The Economic Importance of Women’s Rising Hours of Work” finds that this dramatic increase in women’s working hours has substantially affected both household earnings and the economy more generally. Key findings of the report include:
Middle-class households would have substantially lower earnings today if women’s employment patterns had remained unchanged over the past three decades.
Most dramatic is the increase in the share of mothers who work full time and full year—at least 35 hours per week and 50 weeks per year—which rose from 27.3 percent of mothers in 1979 to 46 percent of mothers in 2007 before declining somewhat to 44.1 percent in the wake of the Great Recession. Full-time, full-year employment for all women increased from 28.6 percent of all women in 1979 to 43.6 percent in 2007 before declining to 40.7 percent in 2012.
The median annual hours worked by women increased 739 hours from 1979 to 2012. All of this increase in median hours took place between 1979 and 2000. Median annual hours of work by mothers increased even more dramatically, rising 960 hours from 1979 to 2012, with all of the increase occurring by 2000.
The importance of mothers’ additional hours of work and their earnings to our economy lend a new urgency to rethinking U.S. labor standards for the 21st century. Even as mothers and women are making significant contributions to the U.S. economy, they continue to do so within a set of outdated workplace norms that are completely unsuited to the 21st century workforce in which most parents work out of the home and must juggle both work and family responsibilities. To address these issues, the report recommends giving workers more control over their schedules with a right-to-request law, instituting a national family and medical leave insurance program, and allowing workers to earn paid sick days.
The paper was originally presented at the 75 Years of the Fair Labor Standards Act Conference at the U.S. Department of Labor, and the research was supported by the Rockefeller Family Fund.
The Center for American Progress also released a companion report that looks specifically at family and medical leave insurance and how the program should be a basic standard for today’s workforce.