The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Forcing Millennial Mothers Out of the Workforce

A mother and child sit on a bench in Central Park amid the COVID-19 pandemic, New York, May 2020.

Millennials—the generational cohort born between 1981 and 1996—are now the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. Yet they have also earned the dubious distinction of experiencing two once-in-a-lifetime economic catastrophes before the oldest have even turned 40 years old. Consequently, the coronavirus pandemic is stretching Millennial parents to the breaking point and may set maternal labor force participation back decades.*

A new Center for American Progress analysis of the Household Pulse Survey finds that during the COVID-19 pandemic, Millennial mothers are nearly three times more likely than Millennial fathers to report being unable to work due to a school or child care closure. Indeed, Millennial men have largely embraced gender equality when it comes to paid work, but research has found that these attitudes rarely extend to child care responsibilities. Today’s heterosexual couples may aspire to more egalitarian parenting and housework, as evidenced by women becoming a majority of the paid labor force for the first time in nearly a decade in December 2019. The data, however, tell a different story, as women are often responsible for a much greater share of child care and household labor. Meanwhile, 80 percent of the 11 million single-parent families are headed by women.

The relatively meager work-family policies in the United States translate to an underresourced child care system and no guaranteed federal paid family and medical leave. While the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided funding for businesses to extend paid sick and caregiving leave to their workers, lobbyists for big business inserted exemptions that, among other things, excluded all workers in businesses with more than 500 employees from such paid leave provisions. As they have for generations, women have shouldered most of the unpaid domestic work, even as their roles as financial breadwinners have grown. Indeed, more than 60 percent of mothers are now the sole or co-breadwinners of their household.

Decades of federal inaction have resulted in a market-based approach to the problem, placing the burden on families to finance a child care system. This has merely resulted in greater gender, economic, and racial inequities. Meanwhile, early childhood educators—who are disproportionately women and specifically women of color—have been systematically underpaid and undervalued in the accounting of economic productivity, perpetuating a history of misogyny and racism that has long characterized U.S. domestic economic policy.

Unfortunately, as a result, Americans have internalized the notion that child care is a personal problem—or even a personal failure on the part of working mothers. In truth, however, the lack of affordable child care is a structural macroeconomic problem that policymakers have ignored for far too long; their choices and priorities may now push millions of working mothers into unemployment as the child care system faces a pandemic-induced existential threat.

The pandemic is exacerbating gender disparities in child care and employment

In March 2020, when schools and child care programs were forced to close amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Millennial parents braced for what many thought would be a few weeks of home quarantine. Several months into the pandemic, however, some parents must continue to balance working from home while also caring for and home-schooling their children. Many others have been forced to cut back on expenses due to unemployment and fewer job openings. Meanwhile, essential workers—who are disproportionately women of color—are struggling to find child care that is safe for their children and families.

In the new reality of the coronavirus pandemic, a growing body of evidence shows that mothers are assuming the lion’s share of housework, child care, and home schooling responsibilities. This analysis uses data from the Household Pulse Survey, which was rapidly developed and implemented by the U.S. Census Bureau to track the social and economic effects of COVID-19 on households. This weekly survey, covering the months of April through July 2020, asks respondents to identify the main reason they did not work the previous week. As seen in Figure 1, more than one-third of nonworking Millennial mothers reported “caring for children not in school or [child] care” as their main reason for not working. In contrast, Millennial fathers were nearly three times less likely to cite child care as their main reason for not working.

Starting in April, the share of mothers and fathers citing child care closures as the main reason for not working began to increase, reaching a peak of 38 percent for Millennial mothers in late June and early July before declining slightly in mid-to-late July. Nonetheless, there are still far more Millennial mothers not working due to child care and school closures than there were in April.

Figure 1

These data show that child care responsibilities are having a negative impact on Millennial mothers’ attachment to the labor force—and this problem seems to have only gotten worse with the pandemic stretching into summer. Over the long term, these impacts are likely to compound. Research has shown that women’s lifetime earnings are significantly affected when they leave the workforce for even a couple of years, exacerbating the gender earnings gap.

Conclusion

Betsey Stevenson, the former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor, recently stated: “The impact of the child care crisis on women’s outcomes is going to be felt over the next decade.” While this is undoubtedly true, federal policymakers can mitigate the crisis by investing in the child care industry and providing workers with access to paid leave in order to support working families and maternal employment. For example, a significant stabilization fund would prevent the United States from permanently losing as many as 4.5 million licensed child care slots over the next several months. Working parents also need access to paid sick days and paid family and medical leave so that they are able to take time off work to care for a child, care for a sick loved one, or recover their own health without losing a paycheck or their job.

Without robust child care infrastructure or comprehensive paid leave for all, the gender gaps in employment, domestic caregiving, and lifetime wages will widen to levels last seen decades ago. Congress must act swiftly to ensure that thousands of child care businesses do not close permanently over the coming weeks and months. Millennial mothers are the backbone of the U.S. economy, but they are weathering more economic turmoil than they have in previous generations. Failing them now in their hour of need would have devastating effects on the economy for generations to come.

Rasheed Malik is a senior policy analyst for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress. Taryn Morrissey is a senior fellow at the Center.

*Authors’ note: Millennial parents are defined as survey respondents born between 1981 and 1996 that share a household with a child under the age of 18. The Household Pulse Survey does not ask about household relationships or parental status.