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labor COVID-19 Takes Toll on Women’s Labor Force Participation, Reversing Trend

As the pandemic continues, many women have left the labor market as they shoulder more responsibility for caregiving of children and adult family members, family health needs, homeschooling due to school closures, and managing other disruptions

When the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) first began measuring women’s labor force participation rates (LFPR) in 1948, about 35 percent of women overall, and only 17.2 percent of women ages 55 and older, were in the workforce. Over time these rates grew significantly. In 2019 the LFPR averaged 76 percent for women ages 25 to 54 and 35 percent for women ages 55 and older. Then, beginning in the spring of this year with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the LFPR declined for both age groups. In October, it was 74.6 percent for women ages 25 to 54 and 33.6 percent for women ages 55+. One factor behind the drop was significant job loss in sectors employing predominantly women, but other factors having a greater impact on women came into play as well.

Why Women are Getting Hit Harder

As the pandemic continues, other factors are influencing women’s participation in the labor market. Many workers, especially women, have had to dedicate more time to home life as they shoulder more responsibility for caregiving of children and adult family members, family health needs, homeschooling due to school closures, and managing other disruptions. These added responsibilities and loss of support systems is contributing to increased stress levels in the workforce. An S&P Global/AARP survey found nearly 30 percent of respondents—both men and women—report a strong increase in stress and 43 percent report a moderate increase.

Women of all ages have felt the impact. While the downturn in LFPR has been sharpest among women ages 25 to 54, women ages 55 and older have also seen a decrease. In families with two adults at work, when one earner must leave the labor market to take on more home responsibilities, it will usually be the lower earner, often the female worker, to leave their job. Recent research has found that  one in four women in the workplace is currently contemplating downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.

Will COVID-19 Reverse Older Women’s Labor Market Gains?

Before the pandemic, the BLS forecast that older women would be the fastest-growing demographic in the workforce in the years ahead. But in the current environment, older women have experienced markedly high rates of unemployment, and are among those most likely to lose their jobs or leave the labor market entirely. Many economists are now asking: To what extent will women’s unemployment and labor force participation rates recover, and, if so, how long will such a recovery take?

For women ages 55+, getting back into the workforce may be particularly challenging. Older jobseekers typically spend a longer time out of work compared with their younger counterparts; in October, 41 percent of jobseekers ages 55 and older were long-term unemployed, compared with 31.7 percent of those ages 16 to 54. Those who have exited the labor market entirely—that is, those who were not looking for work at some point—have an even harder time securing employment. This is especially true for workers with lower levels of education.  

Moreover, the implications are further reaching, with families, communities, and economies standing to all be affected by a stall in women’s advancement. Fewer women in the labor market would affect household incomes, retirement savings, consumer spending, and the pace of the overall economic recovery in the U.S. and around the world. Looking back, women also lost ground in the labor market during and after the Great Recession.  But they were making progress in the workforce in recent years. The challenges they now face may reverse some of those gains.

For more jobs data: Find the latest employment data in the AARP Public Policy Institute's (PPI) Employment Data Digest, PPI's monthly review of job trends for those ages 55 and over. Visit the AARP website's work and jobs section for articles on work and unemployment and job search resources.

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Jen Schramm is a senior strategic policy advisor at the AARP Public Policy Institute. Her areas of expertise include employment trends, policy challenges and opportunities related to workers and jobseekers ages 50 and above, and skills and credentialing for mid- and late-career workers. Read her full biography.