Published on November 12, 2021
Americans quitting their jobs at a pace never seen before despite record job openings have left many economists scratching their heads. Conventional analyses pin the discrepancy on a host of concerns, such as lack of child care and lingering fear of covid-19.
Left unexamined is another potential explanation: Many Americans may simply not want to run in the rat race anymore — and are opting for single-earner families instead.
The U.S. economy has evolved over the past few decades to rely on a ready supply of relatively inexpensive labor. The pre-1970s economy rested on a model with single-earner households, with disproportionately higher male labor force participation. That model also had relatively low levels of immigration.
That changed during the past 50 years. Immigration, both legal and illegal, shot up. More importantly, women surged into the workforce, soaring from a mere 37 percent of the labor force in January 1960 to a high of 60 percent in December 1997. That level remained roughly constant until the Great Recession, when it dropped to a low of 56.4 percent in September 2015. It briefly began to recover in the hot Trump-era labor market but then dropped during the pandemic and has yet to recover.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.