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Moving the Family Distances Women from the Labor Market

New research tells a story that my younger self would have appreciated because it illustrates how difficult it is for women to be attached to the labor force when their families are forced to move because employment is hard to find.

Dedicated readers will remember that at a shocking young age I was married to a man who for most of our marriage was either on the brink of losing his job or completely out of work. In the constant pursuit of new jobs for him, our family moved, and moved, and moved – nine times over far fewer years, once internationally.

These moves left me perpetually under-employed, continually isolated, and, even during his long unemployment spells, completely responsible for keeping house and home. Perhaps even more importantly, they eroded away any gains I could make in the labor market and defeated any attempt I made to gain equality within my own marriage.

The new research suggests that part of the reason why I had that experience was not just that we moved, but because my earning ability was so much lower that my (much older and better educated) husband.

From a purely economic standpoint moving is good for the family as a unit. For example, following relocation for job reasons, a family’s earned income increases by 9% on average. If the reason for moving was that one member had been transferred by their employer or had received a new job offer, that increase in income was slightly lower at 6.5%. But if they moved because they had lost their existing job, like my husband, the gain in income was significantly higher at 34%.  

Despite increases in household income, women are moving out of the workforce following these family moves. Among families with children that had moved in the past year, only 60% of women were working compared to 75% of otherwise similar women in families that had not moved.

How a woman’s attachment to the labor force is affected by a move, however, depended both on why the family moved (job purposes, family reasons or to improve their quality of life) and on the wife’s earning relative to her husband’s.

Women who earned less than their husbands, for example, in families that moved for job reasons saw their labor supply decline as a result of the move. Women in families that moved for the same reason, however, who were equal contributors to the household income suffered no distancing from the labor market.

I suspect the real issue here is how couples make decisions when one person earns significantly less than the other. Men are making the decision to move their families based on what is best for their own careers and not that of their wives. From an income perspective that makes sense in the short-run, but when a family repeatedly moves in the pursuit of a man’s employment, and if that move erodes a woman’s earning ability, then that behavior leads to a cycle in which women can never gain bargaining power in their marriages.

Obviously, my young self didn’t live with this distancing from the labor market indefinitely. Eventually I took a stand, went to university, found reliable employment, and put down roots of my own. But that doesn’t mean I won’t move again and, in fact, I have plans to do just that. This time though I am going to go for a quality of life move.


Geist, Claudia and Patricia A. McManus (2012). “Different Reasons, Different Results: Implications of Migration by Gender and Family Status.” Demography Vol. 49(1): p.p. 197-217. DOI: 10.1007/s13524-011-0074-8


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