Parents have returned to the workforce, but gains are uneven and challenges persist

Aaron Terrazas

September 16, 2022

Key Takeaways:

  • Just over 1 in 3 (34 percent) of U.S. employees believe that having children could negatively impact career growth. 
  • Labor force participation among parents is back at pre-pandemic levels; for parents of young children (under age 5), it’s now approaching historic highs.
  • While the recovery in labor force participation has been strongest among less educated Millennial mothers with young children (those with less than a college education), it also dropped furthest during the pandemic. Participation among well-educated Millennial mothers with young children didn’t drop at all and has continued on an upward longer-term trend.

It’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times for parents in the workforce. With September 16th marking the annual recognition of Working Parents Day, Glassdoor compiled new data on parents in the U.S. labor force and the challenges of balancing parenthood with careers.

For those able to work from home, the sudden shift in the availability of remote work unlocked opportunities to balance family care responsibilities and freed many from grueling commutes, though it was coupled with dramatically expanded childcare responsibilities as schools and daycares closed. 

For those unable to work from home, the shift has been less ambiguous: Expanded childcare responsibilities have not been offset by greater workday flexibility. 

Working parents are a critical part of the U.S. labor supply: Two-in-five workers – about 40 percent of the total labor force – are parents with a child under age 18 at home, and one-in-nine (about 11 percent) has a young child under age 5 at home. 

As more companies begin to return to full-time office work, there is a simmering fear among some working parents that they will be left behind when it comes to career advancement. Just over 1 in 3  employees, or 34 percent, agree that having children could negatively impact career growth, according to a recent Glassdoor survey conducted by The Harris Poll.

Still, there are nearly 24 million parents who do not participate in the labor market – an enormous pool of potential workers at a time when American businesses have been grappling with unmet labor needs for over two years. If prime working-age (age 25-54) parents had the same labor force participation rate as their peers without children, the U.S. labor force would immediately expand by about 2 million workers. 

Below, we highlight some recent trends in the labor force participation of U.S. parents.

Parents have returned to the workforce, though labor force participation among parents of young children has recovered less dramatically than among parents of older children or non-parents.

Early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, parents left the labor force in large numbers – due in part to broader economic and business disruptions, but also due to schools and daycares closing or pivoting to a remote format that required frequent adult supervision. 

As schools began to reopen, there was substantial speculation among economists as to whether these parents would return to the labor force – particularly since childcare responsibilities initially continued with schools closing periodically or subject to disruptive testing protocols amid various waves of Covid. Professional childcare employment remains 8 percent (about 88,000 workers) below pre-pandemic levels.

With two years of hindsight, we now have a clear and unambiguous answer: Parents have returned to the labor force. For both prime working age adults without children and those with older children (age 5 to 17), labor force participation is now back at pre-pandemic levels. For those with young children (under age 5), it is still slightly below pre-pandemic levels.

Despite a slower post-pandemic rebound, labor force participation among parents of young children is approaching historic highs…

Even though labor market participation among parents with young children remains slightly below its pre-pandemic trend, it is approaching its highest levels of the past two decades. This is due to the combination of a tight labor market (which historically draws non-working adults into the labor market) and a generational shift. Millennials are now the large majority (close to 80 percent) of parents with young children, but also due in part to greater access to remote work. By contrast, participation rates among parents of older children and adults without children are roughly in line with where they stood in the early-2000s, before the Great Recession sparked a drop in labor force participation across demographic groups. 

…Driven by an increase in labor force participation among mothers of young children; Participation among fathers of young children remains higher than among mothers, but has stagnated below pre-pandemic norms… 

For prime working age adults of all parental statuses, labor force participation rates fell more sharply among women than among men during the early months of the pandemic. For women, the drop was more exaggerated among parents than among adults without children, and it was more exaggerated among parents with young children than among those with older children. This supports the notion that women continue to bear a disproportionate burden of childcare responsibilities. 

However, mothers of young children have seen an outsized rebound in labor force participation since the trough of the pandemic. The labor force participation rate among mothers of young children is now nearly 1 percent above its pre-pandemic level, while among mothers of older children it is roughly on par with its pre-pandemic level and it remains slightly below pre-pandemic norms for working-age women without children. 

Among men without children and fathers of older children, participation rates have approximately recovered, although it remains well-below pre-pandemic norms for fathers of young children. While there remain very wide gaps in labor force participation between the mothers and fathers of young children, the fact that participation has improved sharply among these mothers and stagnated among these fathers hints at modest, incremental progress toward gender balance in childcare responsibilities. 

…However, the increase in the labor force participation of mothers of young children has been largely driven by less-educated mothers.

The data does not paint a one-dimensional picture of labor market progress for mothers, however. The recovery in labor force participation among mothers of young children since the trough of the pandemic has been overwhelmingly driven by less-educated mothers. The participation rate of college-educated mothers of young children has steadily progressed higher over the past half-decade – it is even difficult to discern a visible drop in participation for these well-educated mothers during the early months of the pandemic, likely due to greater access to remote work. By contrast, among mothers with less than a college education – whose jobs are typically more likely to require an in-person presence – the early-pandemic drop in participation was sharp and deep, and the recovery has been equally robust.


As U.S. employers have grappled with hiring challenges for much of the past two years, an obvious place to look for workers is among the millions of Americans sitting on the sidelines of the labor force. Tight labor markets tend to open attitudes to workplace flexibility with the aim of accommodating new pools of workers; perhaps no innovation of recent decades has been as transformative for working parents as the pandemic-era pivot toward remote work.

Data from the past several years show substantial, but uneven, progress. For many parents – especially parents of young children – there are unprecedented opportunities to participate in the world of work. But these opportunities are distinctly skewed toward the well-educated. There remain substantial challenges to accommodate the many challenging responsibilities of working parents in front-line service roles that cannot be done from behind a home screen.

A note on the data and methodology

This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of Glassdoor from September 8-12, 2022, among 2,013 adults ages 18+, among whom 1,064 are currently employed full or part-time. The sampling precision of Harris online polls is measured by using a Bayesian credible interval. For this study, the sample data is accurate to within + 2.8 percentage points using a 95% confidence level. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact

The data on labor force participation rates are based on a custom Glassdoor analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s monthly Current Population Survey, microdata published by the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS-CPS program. Raw time series are seasonally adjusted using the Census Bureau’s X-11-Arima software, and then smoothed using a Hodrick-Prescott filter. 

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