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Home Publications Decline of the traditional single-earner couple driven most by mothers of young children and partners of high-earning men

Decline of the traditional single-earner couple driven most by mothers of young children and partners of high-earning men

Barra Roantree and Kartik Vira
Press release

More than three quarters of women aged 25-54 in the UK are in paid work, reaching a record high of 78% in 2017. In contrast, fewer than 60% were in paid work in the mid-1970s. New analysis by IFS researchers, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), looks at changes in women’s working patterns over the last four decades. It shows that these big social and economic changes are in large part driven by mothers. In the mid-1970s nearly half of couples with dependent children had just one adult in paid work; that proportion now stands at just 27% (see Figure). The increase in maternal employment has been concentrated among those with children of pre-school or primary-school age, and also among the partners of relatively high-earning men.

Other key findings include:

  • Increases in maternal employment have been largest for partners of higher-earning men. 40 years ago mothers partnered with men in the bottom and top halves of the male earnings distribution were equally likely to be in paid work, with employment rates of around 60%. Those figures are now around 70% and 80% respectively. In other words, for every additional mother in employment partnered with a lower-earning man, there are around two additional mothers in employment partnered with a higher-earning man.
  • Women are now much less likely to drop out of the labour market around the time they have their first child. 41% of women born in 1958 were in paid work when their first child was 2 years old, but this figure was 58% for women born in 1970 - even though the employment rates of these cohorts were very similar both 5 years before and 10 years after the birth of their first child.
  • The increase in women’s employment has varied significantly across the country: London has gone from having the highest female employment rate to the joint-lowest. In 1975, London’s employment rate among women aged 25-54 was the highest in the UK, at 63%. By the mid-2000s it had been overtaken by every other region in this respect. Despite strong employment growth in recent years, in 2017 its figure of 74% was the joint-lowest in the UK, together with Northern Ireland.

Barra Roantree, a Research Economist at the IFS and an author of the report, said:

“Employment rates for working-age women in the UK have increased dramatically over the past four decades, particularly for those with young children. This is a huge social and economic change – the vast majority of couples with children now have two adults in paid work. With the earnings of women increasingly important for these families, understanding the reasons behind persistent differences in the wages of men and women is all the more important.”

Figure: working status of couples with children

Source: see Figure 11 of ‘The rise and rise of women’s employment in the UK’, IFS Briefing Note 234, published Friday 27 April .

Find out more

Briefing note
Over the past 40 years, the UK has seen an almost continual rise in the proportion of women in employment. The employment rate among women of ‘prime working age’ (aged 25-54) is up from 57% in 1975 to a record high of 78% in 2017.