The claim

“I think we are seeing more stay-at-home mums saying, ‘I think I’ll look for a part-time job’.”
Chris Grayling, April 17 2012

The background

Increasing numbers of women are deciding to give up life as a full-time mother and try to look for a job, the employment minister claimed in a story handed to the Times and the Mail today.

Calling the phenomenon one of the “big trends” of the past year, Mr Grayling blamed  “bad news stories about the eurozone and what the economic climate might be” and claimed: “People are saying, ‘maybe it is time I started looking for a part-time job’.”

To back up this theory, the minister pointed to figures from the Office of National Statistics, which show that the number of women who describe themselves as “economically inactive” has fallen by 71,000. At the same time, “unemployment” among women has risen by 82,000.

Full-time mothers who want to stay at home are counted as “economically inactive” rather than “unemployed”. That term only describes people who are actively seeking work but can’t find it.

Mr Grayling’s claim is that there has been a large-scale switch in status. The suggestion is that mothers who would otherwise have happily have stayed at home are now actively looking for work, if not actually finding it.

If more women are choosing to return to the job market after taking time off to care for young children that helps the government explain the recent spike in the unemployment figures for women, which would otherwise be a very bad news story.

The analysis

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank has taken a closer look at the figures and says they don’t actually back up Mr Grayling’s story.

The latest figures for economic inactivity among women are available here. In tables 2(1) and 2(2), they are broken down by age category.

It’s true that economic inactivity among working-age women (aged 16-64) as a whole fell by 71,000 between November-January 2012 and the same quarter in the previous year. But how many of these women are likely to be full-time mums?

Inactivity among girls aged 16 and 17 fell by 10,000 in the last year, but few of them are likely to have children. A very rough calculation using experimental ONS population figures and teenage pregnancy stats suggests that only around 1 per cent of girls in that age group will have become mothers.

In the next age group – women aged 18 to 24 – inactivity actually went up by 17,000. And among 24 to 35-year-olds it also rose, by some 12,000.

That’s significant since the average age of motherhood is 29.5 years, and the average age when a woman has her first child is 27.8.

So that second category in particular will contain quite a number of women with young children, and women of that age are apparently now more rather than less likely to want to stay at home, on this evidence.

It’s true that economic inactivity did fall among women aged 35 to 49, by some 26,000. No doubt many of those women will be mothers too, but it’s difficult to know how many, or how old their children are likely to be.

Of course those average ages of motherhood are only mean averages, and there will be quite a lot of variation in when women give birth.

But women aged 50 to 64, the age group which shows the highest fall in economic inactivity (down 63,000), will be less likely to have young children.

Nick Pearce puts it like this: “Looking at those aged between 18 and 49 – when most women have young children – economic inactivity has actually increased by 3,000 in the last year.

“By contrast, among older women, aged between 50 and 64, inactivity has reduced by 63,000.

“Another way of putting this is that almost 90 per cent of the drop in female inactivity in the last year has been among women aged over 50. Not quite the story Chris Grayling was trying to tell.”

The verdict

The IPPR actually thinks the figures show the reverse of what Mr Grayling wants them to show.

Mr Pearce said: “It is much more likely that women with young children are being put off a return to work – through a combination of cuts to tax credits and childcare support and the tough job market – with major negative long-term consequences for them and the economy as a whole.

“By contrast many older women are realising that they don’t have the pension provision they hoped for and so need to stay in employment – or at least look for work – for longer.”

Of course that’s just a theory, but so is Mr Grayling’s notion about mothers trying (and apparently failing) to return to work.

And a more in-depth look at the government’s own figures suggests it’s a theory that doesn’t hold much much water.

By Patrick Worrall

[Update: After we published this blog, a DWP spokesman gave us this response: “There has been clear evidence over the past few months of people, particularly women, moving from economic inactivity to looking for work. This has been one reason for the increase in the overall level of unemployment.

“Many of those returning to the labour force are – as the IPPR says – women aged between 35 and 49 – and many will be mothers looking to return to work.

“Others are women in their 50s whose children have grown up and now want to find work again. We are also seeing more lone parents move into job search and showing up in the unemployment figures as part of our welfare reforms.”]