The XX Factor

Female Sadness Skepticism

As every sentient being knows by now, a recent(ish) analysis by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that American women are increasingly bummed. Last week in a much-discussed article on DoubleX , Sharon Lerner blamed our mood on lack of paid maternity leave, childcare, flexible work options, and the like. Commenters seem inclined to agree; I’m not so sure. For starters, I can attest to the fact that not all women are mothers. If insufficient social support for working mothers were behind the trend, we’d expect to see some sort of happiness divide between women without children and women with children, or perhaps between stay-at-home moms and those trying to balance work and family. Wolfers and Stevenson found the opposite:

There are no statistically significant differences in the trends for women with and without children nor are their differences between these groups in the trend in happiness for men (or the subsequent trend in the happiness gap). Along with the decline in marriage has come a rise in single parenthood, both through growth in out-of-wedlock births and through divorce. Thus, we disaggregate the fertility results to consider trends in happiness separately among single parents and married parents, and, to account for the duel burden of working parents, between employed parents and non-employed parents . Once again, we see similar trends in happiness across these groups, casting doubt on the hypothesis that trends in marriage and divorce, single parenthood, or work-family balance are at the root of the happiness declines among women . [emphasis mine]

Note how uncooperatively unideological the data are. There’s not a lot here for social democrats or religious conservatives or (sadly!) market liberals. And as the bloggers at Distributed Republic point out , Wolfers and Stevenson found that female happiness is declining in almost every Western European country they analyzed, paid maternity leave notwithstanding.

The whole conversation about declining female happiness is based on some vanishingly small statistical differences. (Check out this handy graph by Mark Liberman; also his dyspeptic posts here and here .) I find this tiny dip is a lot less interesting than, say, our weirdly resilient birth rate.

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Photograph of busy mom by Photodisc/Getty.