In the first moments of the Barbie movie, little girls trash their baby dolls. Those girls wanted the replacement that Mattel’s co-founder Ruth Handler created for them.
They wanted Barbie.
Developed when Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor were feminine icons, Barbie too was glamorous and pouty. Priced at $3.00 ($31.67 today), 300,000 of the first Barbies were sold.
The first Barbie was a fashion model:
Then, by 1961, she was also a nurse, a ballerina, and a stewardess:
As economists, we could say that Barbie was both a leading and a lagging indicator.
Forecasting the future like most leading indicators, Barbie was a presidential candidate in 1992, an astronaut in 1965, and had her dream house long before women had finance independence. (A female cosmonaut went into space in 1963 but, it took until 1983 for Sally Ride to become the first female American astronaut.)
We could add that Barbie was a coincidental indicator in 1959. At the time, women who worked outside the home were typically teachers, nurses, saleswomen, and secretaries.
And below, you can see that, as a lagging indicator, many of her careers reflected the past:
Finally though, in 2011 Barbie could design her own dream house as an architect, she was an entrepreneur in 2014, and in 2021, as part of a series to commemorate frontline Covid workers, she was a professor of vaccinology.
Our Bottom Line: Human Capital
The US labor force is composed of people 16 and over who are gainfully employed or unemployed and looking for a job. No job? Not looking? 16 or over? Then you are not participating in the labor force. Mathematically, the participation rate compares everyone who is or could be in the labor force to those who actually are in it.
We could illustrate Barbie’s evolution through women’s ascending labor force participation rates:
Meanwhile, all of the Kens (there are many in the Barbie movie) diminished their labor force participation:
Most crucially though, Barbie has demonstrated the change in women’s human capital. Once women could control the timing of pregnancy, they could delay marriage and motherhood, and place career before family. Empowered since the 1970s by The (birth control) Pill, we became judges, physicians, dentists, architects, veterinarians. We populated professions that required years of our time outside the household, we married for companionship rather than for the traditional household division of labor, and we accelerated the divorce rate.
Indeed, by 2023, Barbie could become whatever she wanted.
My sources and more: Having just seen the Barbie movie, of course I needed to check out Barbie economics. That took me to the St. Louis Fed and the connections between Barbie’s careers and women’s labor force participation. While the Planet Money Indicator had some facts, an econlife that looked at the impact of the Pill tells an important part of the story. And finally, for the best series of Barbie doll images for all years, Insider had it all.