Are more women choosing to become full-time housewives and mothers? Economists can't answer that question for sure. But they are vitally interested in the reply.
Already, notes Richard Devens, an economist in the Bureau of Labor Statistics , ''the increase in the labor force participation of women has slowed down.''
Susan M. Wachter, an associate professor of finance at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, says it is too early to tell whether this slowdown is permanent or not.
During the 1970s and into 1981, the rush of women to get paid jobs and have careers meant that the proportion of adult women in the labor force rose between 0.7 and 1 percent per year. Some 45.3 percent of adult women were working for pay in 1974. The figure was 53.1 percent last year.
However, the growth in female labor force participation slowed down in 1982 to 0.6 percent and last year to 0.4 percent.
One possible explanation for the immediate slowdown, Mrs. Wachter says, is the current baby boomlet among the women of the post-World War II baby-boom generation. Many such mothers stay home for a year or so after the birth of a child before going back to work.
Another possibility is that, as the economic recovery puts more men back to work, some wives are quitting their jobs, Professor Wachtel suggested. That is a normal cyclical event.
But she doubts that there has been any shift back to previous cultural patterns where it was considered best for women to stay home to look after house , food, and family.
Whatever, the slowdown in female participation in the labor force is one of several reasons the unemployment rate dropped more rapidly in 1983 than economists anticipated. At the start of 1983, unemployment stood at a 40-year high of 10.7 percent of the civilian labor force. By last month it had dropped to 8.2 percent. That decline of 2.5 percent was the largest 12-month decline since the buildup for the Korean war.
If the growth in the participation of women in the labor force slows again or even stops this year, it could further speed a drop in the jobless rate. The consensus forecast, using the predictions of more than 40 economists surveyed by Blue Chip Economic Indicators, has unemployment dropping modestly to an average of 7.6 percent in 1985.
Further, a lull in the growth of the female labor force could ease the job-hunting problem of blacks. George Borjas of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has found that one important reason for high jobless rates among blacks is that employers have preferred to hire white women.
It is possible, of course, that women could again speed the growth of their participation in the labor force.
''We don't have any information on their intentions,'' noted Mr. Devens of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A recent Department of Labor projection has female participation in the labor force growing to 58.3 percent of all women in 1990 and 60.3 percent in 1995. This assumes some ''plateauing'' in growth, notes Henrietta Dabney, associate director of research at the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in New York.
This projection calculates a slight decrease in the labor force participation of women over 55, from 22.7 percent in 1982 to 19.9 percent in 1995. But 81.7 percent of women aged 25 to 34 will be working for pay in 1995, compared with 68 .6 percent now, the study suggests. The comparable percentages for women aged 35 to 44 are 82.8 percent and 68 percent.
Miss Dabney figures that economic necessity, rather than better birth control or the women's movement, was the prime reason why so many women joined and stayed in the labor force in the 1970s. Because of their huge numbers, the members of the baby-boom generation, either male or female, did not advance in their careers so rapidly as the previous generation and thus two incomes in a family were more often essential.
In Sweden, some 60.7 percent of the women 16 and over participated in the labor force in 1982, well above the approximately comparable rate of 52.6 percent for the US that year. The Swedish government, faced with labor shortages , has made great efforts to encourage women to take paid jobs with child-care programs and other inducements.
But in no other industrial country than Sweden do women join the labor force in such numbers as in the US, according to a study by Joyanna Moy in current issue of the Department of Labor's Monthly Labor Review. Roughly comparable figures for 1982 or 1981 are Japan, 47 percent; Italy, 29.9 percent; Netherlands , 33.3 percent; Australia, 45.4 percent; Canada, 51.6 percent; France, 43.1 percent; Britain, 48.1 percent; and West Germany, 38.9 percent.
In all of these nations except Japan and West Germany, female labor force participation has risen from a decade ago. (In Japan it fell slightly to 47.3 percent in 1973. Germany's rate remained the same.)
Only in Canada and Sweden was the growth in female participation in the labor force as marked as in the US.
Wharton School's Professor Wachtel says that attitudinal studies show that Americans, men and women, lead the world (with the possible exception of some Scandinavian nations) in their acceptance of the equality of women and men.