Technological progress is a key source of economic growth, but its effects aren’t always fully captured by its effects on gross domestic product. Sometimes a new technology changes everything — the way we work, the way we live, the way we relate to one another in society.
Consider, for example, the effects of the birth control pill.
If it never occurred to you that modern birth control was a transformative technology, or more broadly that expanding women’s ability to choose had profound economic as well as social effects, you have plenty of company. There have been innumerable books and articles about the economic impacts of, for example, globalization and information technology.
But in 2002, when Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz published an article titled “The Power of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives and Women’s Career and Marriage Decisions,” they were entering a sparsely populated field.
On Monday, Goldin, a professor at Harvard, received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in recognition of her role in advancing our understanding of women’s labor market outcomes. It was a richly deserved honor.
In fact, if you ask me, the Nobel announcement sold Goldin a bit short by failing to note her hugely important contributions beyond the issue of women’s work. In particular, it didn’t mention her work on inequality more broadly, notably her role in documenting the sudden and drastic decline in inequality that took place in the 1940s, creating the middle-class society I grew up in (which has now been destroyed).
Which is not to say that women’s work is a minor issue. It’s an immensely important subject, one whose study Goldin pioneered.
Put it this way: For most of the 1960s, American women in their prime working years were less than half as likely as men to be part of the paid labor force; by 2000 three-quarters of the gender gap in labor force participation had been eliminated.
This represented a large increase in the economy’s labor supply, and hence in potential G.D.P.; my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the impact of rising female employment on economic growth was comparable to, say, the effects of globalization.
But the effect on G.D.P. was only part of the story.
In 2006 Goldin published an extraordinary panoramic overview of the history of women at work in America. As she documented, the percentage of women in the paid labor force rose steadily from around 1930 to 1970, a rise Goldin attributed to the combination of the economy’s shift away from manual labor toward clerical work and a rise in female education, along with the diffusion of household technologies like refrigerators and washing machines that freed more married women to work outside the home.
But these changes, she argued, did not at first fundamentally change the way society and women themselves thought about women’s work. For the most part, women were seen and saw themselves as secondary earners, working to supplement their families’ income but ready to drop out of the work force if they had children or their husbands earned enough that they didn’t need the money.
Around 1970, however, there was what Goldin called a “quiet revolution” in the economic role of women, as women began to view work much the way men did. They saw themselves as likely to remain employed even after marriage, which led them to get more education, get married later and, as men always had, see their jobs as an important part of their identity. This was a profound transformation of society — I would say for the better.
And one important enabler of this transformation was the birth control pill, which made it easier for women to delay marriage, which in turn, Goldin wrote, meant that they “could be more serious in college, plan for an independent future, and form their identities before marriage and family.”
That said, you shouldn’t buy into crude technological determinism. Goldin and Katz noted that the pill didn’t have its most profound effects until legal restrictions that made it unavailable to most single women were removed in the late 1960s. Goldin’s latest paper, released just as she received the Nobel, is titled “Why Women Won” and emphasizes the importance of a large expansion of women’s rights between 1965 and 1973.
And as I was reviewing Goldin’s work for this column, I couldn’t help wondering whether those victories are in danger.
Much commentary I’ve seen about Goldin since the Nobel announcement focuses on the prospects for removing the remaining barriers to women’s advancement. But in the current political environment, I think we should also be worried about retrogression. Conservatives have succeeded in overturning Roe v. Wade, with many red states quickly moving to ban abortion. A significant faction is now setting its sights on restricting access to birth control, and you shouldn’t assume that it won’t happen.
Foreboding aside, however, this is a wonderful moment for the economics profession. Claudia Goldin’s pathbreaking research, deeply grounded in history yet hugely relevant to the present, is a model of what social science should be. This is truly a Nobel to celebrate.