A recent working paper from NYU professors Raquel Fernandez and Joyce Cheng Wong suggests that a steady rise in divorce rates throughout the 1960s and 70s drove boomer women to increase their education and work experience.
The paper, funded by the National Bureau of Economic Research, evaluated how changes in family structure, economic environment and cultural norms between 1935 and 1955 contributed to increased education and labor force participation among women born in the latter year.
Between 1935 and 1955, the presence of women on university campuses rose steadily enough to virtually kill the education gender gap by the 1960s, the report says. At the same time, with the United States embracing progressive changes in equality and women's liberation, divorce rates rose – disproportionately affecting women, who found themselves strapped with the burden of single parenthood more often than their male counterparts, and generally lacking in the necessary work experience required to provide for a family.
"The 1935 cohort is the cohort that saw the largest changes in terms of its education, it caught up to men, and in terms of its labor force participation," the study's author, Raquel Fernández, told The Huffington Post. "If you look at 1935, if you were a white woman who was married, during the ages of 20 to say 40, about 40% of those women were working. If you look at the 1955 cohort during those same ages, about 70% of them are working."
Despite gains made by women on campuses and in the labor force between 1935 and 1955, however, the authors found that “conditional on education level, men greatly benefited from the changing economic environment, whereas both high school and college women lost from those changes.”
Though strides made by boomer women led to greater workforce opportunity, most of them – including the least educated among them – were worse off economically than their 1935 counterparts, a fact the paper’s authors contribute to the “asymmetric gender costs of divorce.”