Why are so many women dropping out of the workforce?

In 1948, just over a third of prime-age women had a job or sought one. By 1999, after five decades of unrelenting progress, 76.8% of those women were in the workforce.

Since then, the participation rate slipped to 74.3%, and the number of women not looking for work grew by more than 12,000.

Some see the abrupt reversal as an unsurprising result of more than two decades without any major legislation making it easier for new parents to take time off or pay for childcare. Any number of articles and analyses have pondered the effects of a stubborn gender pay gap, inflexible schedules that keep women out of the executive suite and an undercurrent of discrimination that, at its worst, leaves women vulnerable to regular harassment.

But top economists now are pointing to another explanation. Women seem to be leaving the workforce for some of the same reasons men are: Middle-class jobs are in short supply and working at the bottom pays less than it used to.

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