If there were a list of common complaints about America’s economy, the fact that too few people work would be near the top. Though unemployment is low—only 4.3% in July—the figure does not include those who are jobless either by choice, or because they have given up looking for work. The proportion of those aged between 25 and 54 in work is 79%—lower than in France, where the unemployment rate is more than twice as high. So it is a relief that over the past two years, as the labour market has improved, Americans aged 25 to 54 (prime-age, in the jargon) have been joining the labour force in greater numbers. What is remarkable, however, is that this turnaround has been driven almost entirely by women.
When people think about America’s hidden reserves of labour, they usually point to prime-age men, who have participated in the labour market at ever-lower rates since the 1960s. Things have been particularly bad for less educated men, who have suffered as technological progress and trade have killed off manufacturing jobs. More than one in five prime-age men with a high-school diploma does not work, compared with fewer than one in 11 men with a bachelor’s degree….the top end of the labour market is increasingly promising for women. Even in 2010, America’s working women were about as likely to be managers as men; elsewhere, they were only half as likely. They were also more likely than men to be professionals. Women are now a majority among new college graduates, make up more than half of law students, and are equally represented among freshmen at medical schools. Women in their late 20s and early 30s are responsible for nearly 40% of labour-force growth since prime-age participation bottomed out in August 2015.