This week’s Time magazine cover story is on “The Richer Sex,” with author Liza Mundy arguing that women are poised to take over as the breadwinners in a majority of America’s families.
Of course, when you hear that, it’s easy to revert to stereotype, and picture a “reverse traditional” family, where mom goes off with her briefcase, and Dad is wearing an apron (why, oh why, do articles on primary parent fathers always mention aprons? Does any primary parent mother actually wear aprons?) The picture is a bit more complicated. One reason women are breadwinners is that many families don’t feature a marriage between the children’s biological mother and father. A majority of children who are born to women under age 30 are born to single mothers. Women are breadwinning in these cases because otherwise there’s no bread. When you add in the divorce rate, you again get a lot of women who are supporting their families not necessarily because of women’s economic and educational gains. They’re supporting them because they have to.
That said, there is a definite shift within the more traditional family as well. According to Mundy, in dual-earner couples, women contributed an average of 44% of income in 2008, up from 39% in 1997. Women outearn men in 38% of marriages, up from about 24% 25 years ago. Much of this is the fruit of educational gains made in decades past. Women have been the majority of college students for a while, and now earn the majority of masters degrees and PhDs. As these shifts have taken place, childcare and housework have become more evenly split within households (Mundy debunks the belief that men do less housework as their wives earn more in order to re-establish their masculinity — just a sociological pet theory, it seems).
So what does this all mean? I argued in my “The Princess Problem” column that little girls need to grow up thinking that they could be responsible for supporting their whole families at some point. This is why I always hedge when people ask me, in interviews, “so, the message of your book is that people don’t need a lot of money to be happy, right?” Well… I don’t think money is a bad thing. I think little boys still grow up thinking about money in a way little girls don’t, for the very unfair reason that they assume they will be judged in life on how much they will bring in. I see this in the negotiations over part-time work I’ve been privy to. New mom negotiates a 70% schedule for 70% pay, looking to be fair and to play by the rules. But what, pray tell, is the denominator? Employer does not stick to a 40 hour denominator, and so our part-timer works close to full time, but earns less. Someone more focused on money would look at that situation, stick with full-time work and pay, but push back and disappear on occasion, wagering that it’s not that easy to fire someone. Let someone go in a mass layoff? Sure. But you could be working your tail off and still lose out in that situation.
Anyway, what I find most fascinating is that a woman’s income is certainly no longer a detriment in the marriage market, and is starting to be a big plus. Christine Whelan pointed this out in her book Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women back in 2006, noting that there was no longer any marriage penalty for women with college or advanced degrees. And now, according to Mundy, while women in general are marrying less, high-income women are marrying more. Just like rich men have always done well in the marriage market. These high-income women have children, and these children grow up in families where it’s not so strange to have a preschool class dad, where mom and dad are both focused on kids and careers and, as Mundy puts it, there aren’t “outdated notions of which sex is better fitted to what.”
Laura’s note: I’ve had such a great response from my last request, that I thought I’d ask again. Do you ever blog about books? Would you like to blog about All the Money in the World? If so, I can email you a PDF right away. Just shoot me a note (lvanderkam at yahoo dot com).
photo courtesy flickr user kevin dooley