Julie L. Hotchkiss
Economic Review, Vol. 91, No. 2, 2006

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For policymakers, identifying the factors contributing to changes in labor force participation over time is important for setting appropriate policy regarding the nation's productivity. Although the factors contributing to such changes over the past six decades have been well documented, more recent trends in women's labor force participation beg further scrutiny.

This article dissects the changes in the labor force participation rate over the past thirty years among women aged twenty-five to fifty-four. Using Current Population Survey data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the author focuses especially on the unprecedented 2.7 percentage point decline in women's participation rate between 2000 and 2005. While changes in the observed behavior of educated women and in characteristics such as the number of young children have contributed to the decline, the results suggest that the largest contributors have been unobserved changes.

From a policy perspective, the presence of unobservables is not very satisfying or informative. Nonetheless, the large role of unobservables in determining labor force participation rates suggests that a rebound to participation rates seen in 2000 is not obviously forthcoming or likely to be easily predictable. The next step in studying these trends, the author believes, is further investigation of how labor force participation decisions are made in a family context and how these decisions have changed over time.

May 2006