By MIKE MEYERS
MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL STAR TRIBUNE
Most people may think they're working more than they used to, but married women have the statistics to prove it.
In the past half-century, the average number of hours that married women spend at work has soared 171 percent, according to government figures.
Meanwhile, hours worked by married men fell by 9 percent.
Single workers, of either sex, have it even easier. They work seven hours for every 10 hours married men spend on the job. The unmarried work about 8 percent fewer hours than two generations ago.
Apart from the workers and their families, who cares that married women toil outside the home more than ever?
"It's a pretty remarkable change," said Larry Jones, a University of Minnesota economist. "It's not clear if this change is a good thing or a bad thing."
In 1950, mothers of baby boomers worked outside the home an average of five hours a week. Today, married women on a payroll average more than 20 hours a week -- a figure that continues to climb.
That's a far larger swing in hours worked than any change linked to business cycles, the booms and busts of the U.S. economy.
Looking for answers: Many possible motives were explored in a paper titled "Why Are Married Women Working So Much?" that was presented at the American Economic Association's annual meeting in Atlanta last month by Jones; Ellen McGrattan, economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and Rodolfo Manuelli, an economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Jones and his colleagues are trying to figure out how much of the gain in hours worked by married women can be explained by government policies or other influences.
"Is it due to the change in divorce laws?" Jones said. "If the answer is yes, maybe it's something we didn't anticipate when government changed divorce laws."
On one hand, alimony may be harder to get today than in the 1950s. "Now it's kind of expected that if the kids are in school that she can work," Jones said.
But splitting up is cheaper and simpler than ever before in the age of the $99 do-it-yourself divorce. At the same time, law, medical and business schools have more women enrolled than in years past.
"Women may say, 'I'm going to get educated now -- the chances of me matching up with a man who's going to stick around are low,' " McGrattan said.
Perhaps changes in Social Security benefits or tax laws led women to work more than in the past.
Many other explanations are possible, from changes in technology in the home or workplace to revised attitudes about the role of women in the home and in the economy.
Some questions about married women's working longer hours are difficult to answer with certainty by individual families, much less by the work force as a whole, according to other researchers.
"Is it because women like to be employed and like that activity better than being at home?" asked Vicky Lovell, study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C. "Is it pressures on their family, that they want to increase their standard of living?"
Why do women work?
Monetary motives: Personal satisfaction is the province of psychologists or sociologists. Economists care about money -- and how government actions change incentives.
"Our interest is government policies -- whether they help or hurt," McGrattan said. "You have to understand the underlying forces" that drive personal decisions.
For instance, years ago married couples paid less in federal income taxes than single workers earning the same income. When Congress tinkered with tax laws in the 1980s, married couples suddenly faced a "marriage penalty."
Did lower tax rates encourage women to enter the work force in great numbers in the 1970s? Are women working longer hours today to pay higher tax bills than married couples faced in years gone by?
But preliminary research on the motives of women working longer hours provide some explanations.
Pay gap narrows: So far, economists believe the strongest incentive for women workers is that many are paid more than before.
"Measured female-male wage gaps have decreased," according to the paper presented in Atlanta. "By one measure [hourly wages of full-time workers] female wages were 57 percent of male wages in 1969 and 71 percent in 1994."
Adjusting for education, experience, time away from work to rear a family and other variables, the pay gap also has decreased, but at a slower pace, researchers found.