The male breadwinner is a dying breed. A Pew study out this week confirms his slow march toward extinction: Four out of ten American households with children have a mother who is the sole or primary breadwinner for the family, the highest share on record. And all trends for the future—men out of work and earning steadily less, women earning more college degrees, fewer couples with children getting married—point to us moving farther down this road.
From the broadest historical perspective, this is a radical reversal of a power dynamic that we believe has been around since the caveman days. But in its details, it doesn’t look so glorious. Old systems die hard, and it’s clear from the Pew numbers that Americans are still deeply uncomfortable about the changes and haven’t settled in anything like a happy new egalitarian paradise.
Americans are very conflicted, for example, between their materialism and their traditional family values. In the Pew study, two thirds say that the increasing numbers of working women has made it easier for families to live “comfortably,” but comfortable doesn’t translate into moral. Three quarters say that women working makes it harder for couples to raise children, and half say that children are better off if women are at home. That said, women are starting to like working full time. In the recent survey 32 percent of women say they want to work full time, up from 20 percent in only 2007.
There are some more signs that people are getting used to the changes: Just 28 percent of Americans agreed that it is “generally better for a marriage if the husband earns more than his wife.” But then other studies, summarized in this New York Times story, have shown that couples in which the wife earns more have higher rates of divorce, and that breadwinner wives overcompensate by being extra wifely at home, doing more housework or cooking more elaborate meals.
The worst part of the new trend, though, is the class divide. The female breadwinner looks very different depending on which social class she’s in. About 37 percent are women who make more than their husbands. They are more likely to be white, older and more educated, and their median income is $80,000. Single mothers on the other hand are younger, black or Hispanic and have a median income of $23,000.
The rise of the female breadwinner is obviously not a straightforward feminist triumph, but it shouldn’t be an occasion for nostalgia either. The old days aren’t coming back so we might as well stop pretending and evaluate the new characters as they are—the displaced men, the overworked single mothers, the guilty high earning mothers—and try and make it easier on them.