A new book on the increasing earning power of women in America provides a rather startling statistic. The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family by Washington Post writer Liza Mundy promises:
Within a generation, more households will be supported by women than by men. In The Richer Sex, Liza Mundy takes us to the exciting frontier of this new economic order: she shows us why this flip is inevitable, what painful adjustments will have to be made along the way, and how both men and women will feel surprisingly liberated in the end.
According to the 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, nearly 40% of working wives outearn their husbands. That figure has been rising one percentage point every year since 1987. Mundy predicts that by 2025, more than half the primary breadwinners in America will be female. Here’s how Mundy believes that will look:
Women will have the bargaining power they need to usher in a new age of fairness, complete the revolution, and push us past the unhappy days of the so-called second shift, when so many men and women were mired in arguments over equity that always seemed to boil down to laundry and dishes.
[Men] will craft a broader definition of masculinity, one that includes domestication but also more time spent on manly pursuits: hunting, fishing, and extreme fitness. Women will come to accept the “breadwoman role” and choose spouses who exhibit “supportiveness (a glass of wine waiting at the end of the day, a chance to unburden), parenting skills, and domestic achievements.
Apparently, Mundy describes the cheerful male helpmeet greeting his frazzled wife with a glass of wine at the end of the day at least half a dozen times in the book. It sounds more like Mad Men in reverse than a plausible scenario for American married couples. I also find the reference to manly pursuits extremely patronizing and hypocritical – is this the enlightened version of the 1950s sewing circle?
For some time I’ve been writing about the ascent of the American female. 20-something women earn 117% what their male peers earn. 60% of college students are female. We finally have no choice but to confront the reality that has been decades in the making:
Feminism ushered in new opportunities for women at the expense of men.
That’s not a judgment, just a simple statement of fact. The pie didn’t get bigger, we’re just divvying it up differently, and women are getting the biggest share. In my view this reflects several key influences during the past 40 years:
- Affirmative Action programs for women in education and the workplace.
- Education reforms that favor female learning styles and behavior.
- A shaming of masculinity, forcing men to examine their changing role in society.
- The economy’s move away from sectors that primarily employ males, towards sectors that either favor females or are indifferent to gender.
A shift in power was inevitable. The economy did not expand as much as the size of the workforce did. I distinctly recall hearing an episode of Talk of the Nation on NPR back in September of 2010. The guests were Hanna Rosin, who had written The End of Men for Atlantic Magazine, and Guy Garcia, author of The Decline of Men.
Rosin’s position was clear. Her position was essentially that men are going to have to suck it up and get used to being the lesser sex.
The economy is becoming more amenable to women than it is to men, mostly because women are better educated and because the jobs that are growing are jobs that women tend to do…Another recent interesting study showed that women under 30 are – in 147 out of 150 cities – making more money than men under 30, and that is really amazing.
It does not seem like there’s any way back. Statistics about men doing more housework, doing more childcare – they still don’t do nearly as much as women – but that really is the plus side.
…I mean, the darker side is the kind of frustrated masculinity and men who end up in a situation with no outlet, no job, no identity to cling to. The positive way out, and I think the Time magazine story talked about this a little bit, is if you can somehow embrace the new role, which is slightly more equal, and not be threatened by it, then that’s the best possible solution.
Garcia accurately realized that men were not about to enthusiastically embrace opportunities as nursery school teachers:
So these trends are accelerating very quickly, and definitely what we’re seeing is what I call a fragmentation of male identity. Guys are not really sure who they’re supposed to be…Men’s incomes have been shrinking while women’s and other groups’ have been growing.
And meanwhile…the fact is, guys are still expected in some way to be the patriarch. They still feel bad if they can’t support a family.
…I don’t think society has even come close to saying, well, gee, if women are going to take over the roles that men used to have, now guys are free to be flight attendants and nurses and housewives – isn’t that great, guys? Well, you know, nine out of 10 guys are not so thrilled about that.
And I’ve talked to women who said, well, of course, why would they be happy? Those are the jobs we’re happy to escape now. So it’s not like, you know, trading apples for apples here. It’s really kind of a switching of roles, and nobody knows where it’s going.
Today, Mundy is predicting a new era of undisputed female supremacy, but I think she’s wrong about what women want, and what they’ll be willing to settle for in marriage. Generation Y women show no enthusiasm for embracing the “breadwoman” role:
Research by the Families and Work Institute found that 50% of Gen Y (men and women) place higher priority on family than work, 37% place the same priority on their work and family, and only 13% place higher priority on work than their family.
Writing last month in the Wall St. Journal, James Taranto called out Stephanie Coontz for similarly denying the very real factor of female hypergamy:
Most important, the problem that female education poses to marriage is a product of female, not male, mate preference–of what Coontz calls “the cultural ideal of hypergamy–that women must marry up.”
That is where Coontz goes badly wrong. Any evolutionary psychologist will tell you that female hypergamy–more broadly defined as the drive to mate with dominant males–is an animal instinct, not a product of human culture, which can only restrain or direct it.
Yesterday popular blogger and economist Tyler Cowen linked to the book and cited a European study that declares “the end of hypergamy is near.” It should be noted that the study looked at the willingness of women to marry men with less education than themselves, reflecting the usual academic definition of hypergamy. Cowen acknowledges this won’t satisfy “extreme hypergamy theorists” (heh).
According to our results, if current trends in education are to continue the end of hypergamy is near. This unprecedented scenario demonstrates the important implications that women’s education may have for the erosion of traditional patterns in assortative mating.
A second hypergamy study conducted by an economist at the University of Washington in 2006 also predicted that women are becoming more hypogamous, i.e. willing to “marry down,” at least when it comes to education.
It is commonly believed that women tend to marry more successful men, i.e., that there is “hypergamy” with respect to success, and that success hampers women’s marriage prospects. Using education as a proxy for success, I test these two hypotheses.
I find little evidence that the increased concentration of women at the top of the education distribution has led to a worsening of the marriage market prospects of more educated women. The marriage market accommodated the shift in part through a decline in hypergamy at the upper end of the education distribution.
On the other hand, it appears that the declining economic prospects of men at the bottom of the education distribution have rendered many below the threshold of marriageability. The likelihood of marriage for less educated men fell more than the likelihood of marriage for less educated women. There was no decline in hypergamy at this end of the spectrum; in fact, some measures indicate an increase in hypergamy for this group, as less educated women have increasingly been reaching upward in the education distribution for husbands, or opting out of marriage entirely.
How this plays out in the U.S. remains to be seen. Even Mundy has nagging doubts. Profiling Juan, a man who quit his job to care for kids while his wife Jessica works as a paralegal, Juan has taken to selling Avon to bring in extra money. “They see me as the father,” Jessica told Mundy. “Sometimes I fantasize about, like, leaving her,” Juan confesses, “because I want to feel more masculine again.”
Mundy also is disappointed in women, who she believes are lagging in adopting new gender roles. “Sometimes, if women have a husband who is lower key and happy at home, they feel like they haven’t landed the marriage partner they were supposed to land.” Mundy was amazed to hear how many “breadwomen” worried that their husbands felt emasculated by having to ask them for money. Mundy believes that men can’t just give up and opt out. “Nobody gets hot for a stay at home schlub.”
Mundy has little patience for naysayers:
I mean, how could it not be good for women to have more financial resources and to be more empowered? I mean, how could that be a bad thing?
Women, hang on to your fedoras. Men, don’t let go of your pillbox hats. It’s going to be a wild ride.