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  • As of 2018, a majority of later twenty-somethings of both sexes remained single and childless, and that majority had no statistically significant differences in earnings. Tweet This
  • By 1989, women’s marriage disadvantage had disappeared, and now, two decades later, it has turned into the opposite. Tweet This
  • Fathers don’t earn more than their childless peers anymore; they earn less.  Tweet This

Ever since women began pouring into the workforce in the 1960’s, the gender wage gap has served as shorthand for measuring progress towards women’s equality. The shorthand has its downsides. By collapsing all the ingredients that might influence earnings—education, hours worked, seniority, occupation, discrimination—into one aggregate number, the widely quoted figure has done some mischief in public debate, creating a convenient talking point for politicians and advocates, but one that hides many of the realities driving the gap. 

One of the most stubborn of those realities is the tension between work and motherhood. Researchers in even the most egalitarian countries have found that women take a hit to their earnings when they marry and have children; while men who become husbands and fathers earn more. Men get a welcome “fatherhood bonus,” as the conversation has it, while all women get is a rotten “motherhood penalty.”  

A new paper in Social Science Research, “The Declining Earnings Gap Between Young Women and Men in the United States 1979-2018” by John Iceland of Penn State and Ilana Redstone of the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, sets out to update our understanding of these work/family/income dynamics. Not only do they succeed in doing that, but the gender gap discussion may never be the same. 

Iceland and Redstone begin by confirming the marked decline in the overall wage gap in the decades covered in the paper and dispute the notion held by some researchers that the gender revolution has “stalled.” Women entering the workforce in 1979 could expect to earn only 60% of what men earned, the same as they had for the previous 20 years. After 1980, their position vis a vis men improved dramatically, plateauing at 77% for several years in the first decade of the 21stt-century and jumping to 82% in 2018. (All numbers refer to full-time, year-round workers.). 

For young adults, however, the gap is even smaller; the ratio of median earnings for women compared to men rose from .68 to .93. One reason for the narrowing gap offers a good example of the metric’s drawbacks. The authors find that while young women’s median annual earnings climbed from $33,000 in 1970 to $39,000 in 2019, annual median earnings of men actually dropped from about $48,000 in 1979 to $42,000 in 2019. In this case, then, what we might call progress reflects sinking fortunes for men as much as genuine gains for women. 

Yet those gains are impressive on their own. During the decades examined by the authors, women went to college in ever larger numbers. By 1980, the percentage of women on campus actually surpassed that of men; as of 2018, 37.5% of women aged 25 to 29 had completed four years or more of college, compared with 30.7% of men in the same age group. Women’s advantage in postgraduate degrees was even higher. As they pursued higher education and better opportunities in the labor market, women put off marriage and childbearing considerably later than their mothers did. As it happens, so did men. The percentage of married men in the age group declined from 66% to 31% between 1979 and 2018; for women, the drop was 54 to 33 percent. The result is that as of 2018, a majority of later twentysomethings of both sexes remained single and childless, and that majority had no statistically significant differences in earnings. At least among young adult singles, the gap is no more.  

Let’s call that Gender Gap Update # 1. Update #2 revisits the marriage and motherhood penalty for women. In the not so distant past, once a woman tied the knot, chances were that she would see her paycheck shrink in comparison to her unmarried peers; that was true even if she had no children. This is no longer the case. By 1989, women’s marriage disadvantage had disappeared, and now, two decades later, it has turned into the opposite.

Twenty-something wives now earn 6% more than unmarried women. Two caveats: first, the marriage advantage is partly an artifact of trends in college graduation. College- educated women are now marrying at higher rates than noncollege-educated women and the former tend to earn more than the latter. And second, depending on the model, married men get as much as a 12% boost in earnings compared to their less-educated peers, two times the advantage for women. It’s likely that the male marriage advantage is also a consequence of a selection effect. 

While marriage no longer puts a damper on women’s earnings, that’s not the case for motherhood. Mothers, at least those who have children in their late twenties, continue to make less than childless women. Similarly, there remains a substantial gender gap among full-time working young adult men and women who are both married and have children. Still, the disparity has shrunk markedly over time. That gender gap stood at 40% in 1979; by 2018, it was down to 21 percent. Notably, median earnings grew by 19% among all women, but the groups who experienced the largest gains were those who were married and those who were married with children; incomes improved by 24% for both of these groups.  

Perhaps the most striking update is #3, tracing the demise of the fatherhood bonus. Fathers don’t earn more than their childless peers anymore; they earn less. Depending on the variables being considered, in 2018, men with children earnedas much as 13% less as those without kids. In the past, observers frequently interpreted father’s earnings advantage as evidence that employers see “family men” as reliable, committed workers, while they view women as distracted by divided loyalties. “One of the worst career moves a woman can make is to have children,” New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller wrote in 2014. Now we can add fathers to that statement. 

Iceland and Redstone seem to be the first to find an emerging fatherhood penalty, but the trend is consistent with time use and opinion surveys. Though marrying late, Millennial men who do have families are more heavily involved in the day-to-day care of their children. According to the Work Families Institute’s 2017 Annual Work Family Index, for instance, dads are eager to pitch in at home. “In total, 46% [of Millennials] said they would be willing to take a pay cut to achieve a better work life balance. The figure for fathers overall was 38%,” the index finds. Almost half of these men reported they would prefer to “downshift into a less stressful job.”    

A shrinking gender wage gap will strike many as happy news, but the picture presented in John Iceland and Ilana Redstone’s article is not exactly hopeful. There’s considerable evidence that despite their progress in the labor market, women still prefer to marry men who earn more than they do. Now that men’s earnings have stagnated while women’s wages are going up, it will be harder to satisfy that preference. The declining fortunes of men—and perhaps the rising status of women—may help explain why a majority of births to twenty-somethings are outside of marriage, why Millennials are putting off and perhaps even giving up on tying the knot, and why American fertility rates keep flirting with record lows. Moreover, a fatherhood penalty is not a trend that any healthy society wants to celebrate, even if it is a result of more daddy time.  

The authors of this new study describe their findings this way: “married people earn more than those who are unmarried, but people with children earn less than those without.” That’s a gap that also deserves the attention of researchers and policy makers. 

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America.