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Young women head back to school in US

business Updated: Dec 29, 2011 22:02 IST
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Workers are dropping out of the labour force in droves, mostly women, many of them young. But they are not dropping out forever; they seem to be postponing their working lives to get more education.

For the first time in three decades, there are more young women in school than in the work force.

"I was working part-time at Starbucks for a year and a half," said Laura Baker, 24, who started a master's program in strategic communications this fall at the University of Denver. "I wasn't willing to just stay there. I had to do something."

Many economists initially thought that the shrinking labour force - which drove down November's unemployment rate - was caused primarily by discouraged older workers giving up on the job market. Instead, many of the workers on the sidelines are young people upgrading their skills, which could portend something like the postwar economic boom, when millions of World War II veterans went to college through the GI Bill instead of immediately entering, and overwhelming, the job market.

Now, as was the case then, one sex is the primary beneficiary. Women in their late teens and early 20s view today's economic lull as an opportunity to upgrade their skills, but their male counterparts are more likely to take whatever job they can find.

The longer-term consequences, economists say, are that the next generation of women may have a significant advantage over the men, whose career options are already constrained.

"Almost everyone in my programme is female," said Baker. "As women we feel we have to be more educated to be able to compete."

"It doesn't surprise me that in a poor economy women are ramping up their schooling," said Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for American Progress. "The real question is: Why aren't more men doing it too?"

Why, indeed?