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1 Claudia Goldin is one of the most influential economists of her time. A professor at Harvard University, she has been the director of a department of the National Bureau of Economic Research and the president of the American Economic Association, among other roles. A key figure in the economics of gender and the economic history of work and the family, her work is in the tradition of Gary Becker, based on modelling individual choices under constraints. But she has marked out a place, above all, by giving historical depth to our understanding of behaviour. Driven by curiosity, she defines her research as ‘detective work’ on previously neglected data, aimed at bringing to light patterns that have not been included in existing descriptions of changes in behaviour over time. [1]

2 Her latest book offers a remarkable, and remarkably accessible, synthesis of her entire body of work. It traces the history of changes in women’s participation in the labour market in the United States from the early 20th century to the present, and the evolving complexity of the relationship between career and family. Its strength lies in its illustration of how successive generations of women have met their double aspiration to both a career and a family life in the face of changing economic, medical, and institutional contexts. The chapters focus on college-educated women, who have made up a steadily increasing proportion of all women over time. They are illustrated by the stories of women: some are women who crossed Goldin’s path, while others are television characters representative of the spirit of their time.

3 The book divides recent history into five waves of female generations, from the late 19th century to the present. In doing so, it shows how and why we moved from a situation where the few female university graduates had to give up marriage and family to one where women continue their education and fight to pursue a career while having a partner and children. Each generation learns from the choices and mistakes of those that came before—seeking to avoid replicating their mothers’ model—and is faced with the same dilemma: how to divide their lives between work and family. Here, time is a constraint that acts on several levels. One is the need to allocate the 24 hours in each day to work and children. Another is the need to be able to depart from routine schedules, with each activity voraciously demanding priority. And finally, there is time across the life cycle: when to start a career, when to start a family, and when to have children.

4 Group 1 (born between 1878 and 1897), the earliest, had to choose one or the other: family or career. The few women who broke through the barriers to a scientific career seldom had a husband and children. Here, Goldin brings key academics out of an undeserved obscurity, such as Margaret Reid (1896–1991), who studied the economics of domestic production 50 years before Becker, worked with Simon Kuznets on the construction of the cost of living index, and argued (unsuccessfully) for the inclusion of unpaid domestic work in national statistics. Group 2 (born between 1898 and 1923), who took advantage of the boom in qualified service jobs, successively combined work and family by delaying entry into marriage. Women in this group ran up against the crisis of 1929, which sent them out of employment en masse. Goldin has demonstrated the impact of the ‘marriage bar’, a legal provision in the United States (and in other English-speaking countries) on married women holding qualified employment (e.g. as teachers). Once women were married, they were dismissed; or if already married, they could not be recruited, as their husbands were supposed to provide for the needs of the entire family. The Depression reinforced this arrangement, only set aside after the Second World War in a time of shortages of qualified labour. Black women were much less affected by this ban, perhaps because the stigma associated with paid employment was greater for white women, but above all because the segregated southern states could not afford to deprive themselves of female teachers.

5 Group 3 (born between 1924 and 1943) prioritized family before returning to employment once their children had grown up. They pursued education and employment, but then large families kept them at home for lack of sufficiently high-quality childcare services. According to the prevailing social norm, it was the mother who was best able to care for her children. This group preferentially chose qualifications that would maintain their currency over time (such as a teaching certificate) to be able to return to the workforce once their children had grown up. For Group 4 (1944–1957), the baby boomers, the medical revolution in contraception completely transformed the situation. In one of her most celebrated articles, Goldin termed this the ‘Quiet Revolution’. For women in this group, attaining financial independence through a career became a priority even if it meant increasingly delaying having children, and even at the risk of never having any children at all. Group 5 (born between 1958 and 1978) was well versed in contraception but faced a new problem: how to have children when fertility drops beyond the age of 35? Medical advances (IVF, etc.) would prove decisive in partially removing this constraint, allowing women in these cohorts to persist in their decision to postpone motherhood. In this period, the time of education and training had become longer (nearly 13 years after secondary school), and it was increasingly common for individuals to obtain their first long-term job in their 30s.

6 And what of fathers in all this? They are not at the centre of the picture Goldin paints here, but they implicitly represent the opposite side of mothers’ obstacles and grievances. While mothers complain of lacking time for their careers and missing opportunities for promotion, fathers complain of not having enough time to devote to their children. This specialization within couples is due not only to gender norms but also to an implacable logic in the monetary valuation of waged time: companies disproportionately reward long hours and 24-hour availability. This means that for couples, choosing to divide domestic tasks and paid work equally means depriving themselves of substantial monetary resources and thus of family well-being. Specialization—with one member of the couple in an unconditional commitment to work and the other giving priority to children’s unpredictable needs—enriches the household as a whole; and very often, it is the fathers who take long hours and business trips.

7 What developments can we expect in the future? The answer is far from obvious. On Goldin’s account, it all depends on what happens in the world of business and the organization of work, knowing that employers will seek to decrease their total payroll and thus limit high wages to employees who work the longest hours and are always available. The more tasks are interchangeable, the easier it is to offer services 24 hours a day without relying on the availability of particular individuals. Here is one example to illustrate the gains from the standardization of highly skilled tasks: a surgical operation requires an anaesthesiologist, regardless of when it is performed; but any qualified anaesthesiologist can fulfil this role. To avoid paying overtime, all that is needed is to have a team with availability throughout the week and whose members work in sufficiently close cooperation to be interchangeable.

8 Readers unfamiliar with the economics of gender and the economic history of the United States from a gender perspective will learn a great deal from this book; for economists familiar with Goldin’s work, it will bring abstract concepts to life. It is striking to see the coherence of the studies that Goldin has published throughout her career, from her historical work on women’s participation in the labour market in the interwar period to her investigations of how businesses function and their relationship to time. It is unfortunate, however, that the book focuses entirely on highly educated women, setting aside women with less formal qualifications who do underpaid work with restrictive schedules in the service sector. The careers of university-educated women (and men) depend extensively on services (care for children and older parents) that allow them to reconcile work and family—at the cost of material and scheduling difficulties for those (mostly women) who provide that care. It is a shame, then, to have left out the issue of inequalities between different groups of women in employment, such as the transfer of scheduling constraints.

9 To conclude, a brief material note. The emphasis in this book is on readability; the main text does not include notes explicitly indicating what articles the cited elements are drawn from, nor any detailed methodology. At the end of the book, there are chapter-by-chapter notes, where an expression from the text is reproduced in bold type, along with the corresponding page number and the relevant reference(s) or methodological commentary. Some readers may regret the lack of pointers to these notes in the main text.


  • [1]
    In Michael Szenberg, Passion and Craft: Economists at Work (University of Michigan Press, 1998), Goldin begins the description of her career by saying ‘I have always wanted to be a detective and have finally succeeded.’
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