Leaving the workforce: Myth versus Reality

An  article by Leslie Bennetts from the February 2009 issue of the National Women Lawyers Forum Newsletter.

When Vicki Gault quit her job as a corporate executive, she never dreamed it could jeopardize her entire future. “I was very stressed, and my plan was to give myself a one-year sabbatical,” explains Gault, a 50-year-old mother of three. But when she tried to go back to work, she couldn’t find a job.

Then Gault’s 52-year-old husband died suddenly of complications from routine surgery, leaving only a “very modest” life insurance policy. “I’ve been job-hunting off and on for two years,” Gault says. “I did not understand how difficult it would be. I thought my resume would speak for itself. But people don’t like hiring unemployed people.”

Gault’s plight is common – as is her failure to understand the risks of opting out. Although there has been much debate over whether women should work or stay home with their children, the discussion typically ignores the long-term financial consequences of that choice.

But economic dependency is a dangerous gamble, as I discovered in reporting on its impact for my book The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? Women who sacrifice their financial self-sufficiency are counting on the notion that they will always have a husband to support them – one who remains both healthy and employed.

And yet the facts demonstrate that the majority of stay-at-home wives will eventually find themselves on the wrong side of the odds. “These women are playing without a net,” says Paulanne Mancuso, a Connecticut mother of two who recently retired as CEO of Unilever Cosmetics International. “They’re not only putting themselves in an extremely vulnerable position – they’re putting their kids in an extremely vulnerable position.”

Half of all marriages end in divorce, and women’s standard of living drops 36 percent when their marriages are disrupted, whereas men’s standard of living rises by 28 percent. “In a traditional marriage where women are economically dependent, the consequence of divorce is often a dramatic decrease in the standard of living,” says Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The consequences of divorce are nowhere near as devastating for women who have remained in the labour force.”

Even in intact marriages, husbands can get sick, become incapacitated, lose their jobs, or – as Vicki Gault discovered – die prematurely. The average age of widowhood in America is only 54, and a Money Magazine survey found that 90 percent of women will be the sole financial decision-makers for their households at some point in their lives.

Although most women who opt out of the workforce intend to return later on, re-entry is harder than they anticipated – and the financial penalties are severe. “Women lose a staggering 37 percent of their earning power when they spend three or more years out of the workplace,” reports Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy. “The media fans fears about what will happen to your kids if you work, but a much more realistic fear story is what happens if the husband dies, leaves you, or loses his job, and you have no earning power,” says family historian Stephanie Coontz. “A lot of the problems of divorce are the result of downward mobility. When you have a sudden income loss, you have to change residences; kids have to change schools, and there’s the loss of their peer groups. These things are very risky for kids.”

Even when their marriages endure, most women spend their old age alone; by the time they’re 60, two-thirds of American women do not have partners. The financial consequences can be dire. Twice as many women end up in poverty in their later years, compared with men, and four out of five widows living below the poverty line had not been poor before their husbands died.

And yet the media still cover the decision to stay home as if it were merely a lifestyle choice that helps women escape the hassles of balancing work and family. Given all the hype about the stress of the juggling act, you’d never guess the truth, which is that working women are considerably happier than stay-at-home wives.

Contrary to popular stereotype, research shows that working women suffer less depression and less anxiety than homemakers. Indeed, the mental and emotional health of full-time homemakers improves significantly when they return to paid work outside the home. According to the latest research, working women are even physically healthier than full-time homemakers.

Longitudinal studies conducted over several decades reveal that women who have full-time jobs as well as families experience a lower incidence of a wide range of medical problems than full-time homemakers. “Combining work with family life is actually good for women’s long-term health,” reported one researcher. “Few facts are as well-documented as the good physical and emotional health of women on the job,” Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers noted in “She Works/He Works.” “Among social scientists, the question of whether work is good for women isn’t even much argued any more.”

Even so, stay-at-home mothers typically believe that they’re doing the best thing for their children by forgoing work. But here again, the myth is very different from the reality. Social scientists have studied the children of working mothers and the children of full-time homemakers for more than half a century, comparing the two groups, but the sum total of all that research reveals that the children of stay-at-home moms don’t fare any better or worse than the children of working moms.

There are other factors that do help predict how children will turn out – including poverty, which is a major risk factor for children – but the work status of the mother is not among them.

Moreover, in egalitarian marriages where both partners share the breadwinning as well as the child care and housework, researchers have demonstrated surprising benefits for the kids. One of my favourite findings is the fact that children who do housework with their fathers have more friends, less depression, and perform better in school than children who do not do housework with their fathers.

That study, like all the other economic, legal, sociological, psychological, medical and other information I have collected in The Feminine Mistake, is scrupulously footnoted in the book – just in case any of you moms out there want to cite such helpful research in future conversations with your husbands!

Leslie Bennetts, a long-time writer at Vanity Fair magazine, is the author of Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much. Bennetts lives in New York City with her husband, a fellow journalist, and their two children.

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One thought on “Leaving the workforce: Myth versus Reality”

  • 13 years ago

    For those who are already on career break for whatever reason, and want strategies and advice for returning to work, see Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work, and http://www.iRelaunch.com.

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