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Who’s not working? Behind the full-time caregivers leaving the workforce

Full-time caregiving is one of the biggest reasons why adults don’t work. How money, choice, and gender play a role.

July 5, 2023


David H. Montgomery Data Journalist (former)
African American mother playing with two kids on the couch
MoMo Productions/Getty Images

Article Highlights

  • Nearly 14 percent of women aged 25–54 are full-time caregivers, along with 1.5 percent of men that age
  • Men are more than twice as likely as women to be top-earning partner in opposite-sex households
  • Less than 10 percent of full-time caregivers say they’d rather be working a paid job
Who’s not working? Behind the full-time caregivers leaving the workforce

Sandy Huppert never thought she’d become a stay-at-home mom. Back in 1999, she had a successful career as a bank analyst, and expected to head back to the office soon after she and her husband had their first child.

But then Huppert had twins instead of the single child she had planned for, and she spent months recovering from pregnancy complications. So she and her husband agreed that between her health and the cost of child care, it made more sense for her to take care of the house and kids for a while. “For a while” stretched past her kids’ entrance into school, and into high school, and Huppert found herself a full-time parent with no regrets.

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“At each of those decision points, it was like, ‘Man, [working] would add a lot of stress to our family,’” said Huppert, a Woodbury, Minnesota resident. Huppert is one of millions of Americans who are out of the labor force in order to care for their family. Caregiving is the single most common reason people aged 25–54 give for not working. For people in this age group, full-time caregiving is more common than not working due to school, poor health, unemployment, or military service (Figure 1).

This article is part of an ongoing series looking at who’s not working in the United States, which includes a general overview and a look at America’s aging workforce. The primary data for this analysis come from the federal Current Population Survey Annual and Economic Supplement, accessed via the IPUMS-CPS database at the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Population Center.

Full-time caregivers: Mostly parents, and mostly women

Most full-time caregivers are stay-at-home parents, though not all—around 18 percent of full-time caregivers report no children in their homes. Many in this minority of childless caregivers are adults who are living with their parents and may be caring for them.

Unsurprisingly, more than 87 percent of full-time caregivers are married or cohabitating, where the decision to stay home can be offset by a partner’s salary.

But the single most important fact about full-time caregivers is that they’re primarily women. In 2022, 14 percent of prime-age women were full-time caregivers, compared with 1.5 percent of prime-age men. Overall, 9 in 10 full-time caregivers are women, though male caregivers are becoming more common (Figure 2).

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Caregiving by choice

Partly the female skew of caregivers reflects parents’ preferences. Claudia Goldin, a professor at Harvard University who has researched gender and labor force issues extensively, noted that many women express a preference to take care of their own children, especially in the younger years. This group “has become smaller and smaller,” Goldin wrote in an email, but is still significant.

“If you have a young child in your home, it’s very hard to actually work from home. You still need child care, you still need someone to be with that child and meet their minute-to-minute needs. Work from home is not an alternative to a solid child-care infrastructure—even for a school-age kid.”
—Christie Burke of Richfield, Minnesota

Sara Venhuizen of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, falls into this camp. She noted that she and her husband were both raised by mothers who stayed at home when their kids were young before reentering the workforce. “Both of us liked that idea … of having some of that time and being more present for our kids when they were really little,” Venhuizen said. Venhuizen didn’t leave her job entirely, but she did step back to a part-time schedule for a few years.

Like Venhuizen, Christie Burke of Richfield, Minnesota, made her decision about working after having kids based in part on the example of her own mother. But Burke grew up with a mom who worked, giving her “a really strong role model of parenting while being a professional woman.” As a result, she said, “my plan was never to be a stay-at-home parent. It didn’t feel like a fit for me.” Burke and her husband adjusted their work schedules to make time for parenting, but both remained in the workforce as parents.

Weighing the costs

Economics is also a key factor for many families, even if both parents would prefer to continue to work. The high cost of child care—combined with falling numbers of providers—means many families can face a tough trade-off between both parents staying in the workforce and paying for care or one parent leaving their job to provide care themselves.

And when families do decide to have one partner stay home because of child care costs, it’s often women who do. That can reflect a financial choice as well as preference. In opposite-sex households, the male partner is more than twice as likely to be the top earner. That means if the lower-paid partner stays home, statistically speaking it’s probably the woman in an opposite-sex household (Figure 3).

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Huppert was faced with this exact dilemma in 1999. She had a good job but earned less than her husband. This fact combined with Huppert’s post-pregnancy health complications, she said, made it easy to decide which parent would stay home: her.

Similarly, when Sean Siberio and his wife did the math in 2020, they concluded it made more sense for Sean—a therapist—to scale back his hours than it would for his wife, a doctor.

“When women step out of the labor market … it doesn’t only impact their earnings in that year, it impacts all of their future year earnings, and they basically never recover.”
—Misty Heggeness, professor at the University of Kansas

“When we had our first kid, the decision was fairly easy that of the two of us, the one who was going to ‘take the hit’ was going to be me,” said Siberio, a Minneapolis resident.

Economic research shows that the “hit” Siberio talked about can be real for parents’ career prospects, even if a parent only leaves the workforce for a few years. The data show this impact primarily shows up for mothers; stay-at-home dads have much smaller career penalties than stay-at-home moms do.

“When women step out of the labor market … it doesn’t only impact their earnings in that year, it impacts all of their future year earnings, and they basically never recover,” said Misty Heggeness, a professor at the University of Kansas and past visiting scholar at the Minneapolis Fed’s Opportunity & Inclusive Growth Institute.

Some parents who want to stay home with their kids but also keep their careers going choose to work part time. That’s what both Venhuizen and Siberio did, to make more time for parenting while also continuing their careers. In the Upper Midwest, about 20 percent of voluntary part-time workers say they’re working part time due to child care or family issues.

Families have to weigh these financial concerns against other factors, such as personal preferences or whether they think one choice would be more stressful. Siberio said having one parent working part-time meant they could choose day care and schools for their kids based purely on quality, rather than on factors like whether drop-off and pick-up times meshed with their work schedules.

Valuing flexibility

Parents like Siberio, Burke, and Venhuizen found flexibility from their employers was a key benefit as they juggled careers and parenting. But one key element of flexible work—telework—hasn’t been the game-changer for stay-at-home parents that some expected.

“If you have a young child in your home, it’s very hard to actually work from home,” said Burke. “You still need child care, you still need someone to be with that child and meet their minute-to-minute needs. Work from home is not an alternative to a solid child care infrastructure—even for a school-age kid.”

Heggeness researched the impact of telework on mothers for the Minneapolis Fed, and found “counterintuitive” results—mothers in telework jobs were disproportionately likely to leave the labor market during the pandemic.

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Despite various pressures, most full-time caregivers say they don’t want a job. Overall, only around 8 percent of caregivers say they would rather have a full- or part-time job than care for family full time. Figure 4 shows the desire for a job is higher for male caregivers than female ones. It’s also higher among caregivers without children in the home, who may be caring for their aging parents. But in none of these groups do more than one-quarter of respondents say they’d rather be working.

With no simple solution, families make individual decisions, balancing their own preferences, family budgets, and abundant social pressures.

“You can be a stay-at-home parent and be demonized, and you can be a parent who works outside the home and be demonized, or you can be lifted up and put on a pedestal for either of those choices as well,” said Burke. “It’s harder to find nuanced commentary or support for anything that we do as parents. It’s just really easy in the broader world to feel like you’re doing it wrong.”