A Feminist-Friendly Recession?

by Christine B. Whelan

Marriage in America has taken more than its share of hits over the last four decades.

Christine B. Whelan is a faculty fellow at the National Marriage Project and a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Iowa.

American families saw their household net worth plunge nearly 18 percent in 2008 as the stock market tumbled, unemployment numbers soared, and couples and singles alike wondered how such dire economic news would impact their families and relationships.

While it is lower-income, less-educated single parents and couples who have been hardest hit by significant job losses in the manufacturing and construction industries, families of all tax brackets are feeling the impact of the recent market collapse.

The Great Recession’s emotional toll must not be underestimated, yet amidst this economic reorganization, an interesting social experiment is underway—one that impacts everything from changing family formation decisions to gender dynamics in marriage: Tough financial times may accelerate the social acceptance of women as equal breadwinners and men as capable parents and homemakers. While it is too soon to know for sure, increasing flexibility and equality, especially among educated and younger Americans, might be a silver lining amidst all this financial gloom and doom.

Mate Preferences and Marital Realities

Take Kevin. At 32, he wants to get married and start a family—but says the recession has changed what he’s looking for in a wife. While his mother was a homemaker, the ideal woman for Kevin’s future would be one who “does not have that traditional expectation of wanting a nuclear family with the male as the sole provider.” After getting laid off once already, Kevin says he’s looking for a woman who will help make ends meet. “And plus, sharing everything—earnings, housework, raising the kids—seems like the new normal, anyway.”

Kevin, a financial analyst with a graduate degree, is looking for an educated woman who is a good financial prospect. He’s not alone: Among college-educated young-adults, most men expect to have dual-career households and put an ever-higher priority on education in a wife, according to recent mate preferences research conducted in 2008 just as the most dire financial reports were beginning to appear.[1] In turn, women report an increasing interest in a man who takes a nurturing role in the family.

This isn’t so much a dramatic shift as it is an intensification of a decades-long trend. Since the 1930’s researchers have been asking men and women to rank 18 mate characteristics in order of essential (3) to unimportant (0). In 2008, men ranked “education/intelligence” as fourth of 18 characteristics following a fairly steady climb from eleventh in 1939, and a woman’s ability to be a “good financial prospect” moved to twelfth from seventeenth. For women, a man’s “desire for home/children” increased in rank to fourth in 2008 from seventh in 1939.

Rank ordering of mate preferences, 1939-2008

Mate preferences and marital realities often differ, but there are many other data points suggesting that the desire for more intelligent, employable women and family-friendly men reflects economic realities:

Recession and Gender Roles

Still, for centuries, women have been socialized to believe that they must marry a man who will take care of them—who will economically outperform them, providing financial security for them and a future family. And perhaps more crucially, men have been socialized to equate earnings with self-worth and masculinity. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that research finds simply feeling insecure about employment can negatively impact marital and family functioning for both husbands and wives.[2]

When Michael, 51, was laid off from his job as a pharmaceutical researcher, he felt he’d let down his wife, Virginia, and his two sons. Virginia, a homemaker for nearly 20 years, applied to dozens of jobs and got “not a nibble.” During the eight months Michael looked for a new job, he often helped his younger son with schoolwork, made family lunches, went grocery shopping and did some cooking, but Virginia says she “did not push” him to do cleaning or laundry “as his emotional state was somewhat fragile.” 

According to recent boom-time data, men don’t do more housework and childcare after they lose their jobs, and time-use data from this current recession isn’t yet available for comparison. However, data collected during the recession of 1990-1 suggests that in times of necessity family gender roles may be more adaptable than we think: Between 1988 and 1991 there was a 30 percent increase in fathers as primary care providers for preschool-aged children, to 22 percent from 17 percent, an increase attributed to male joblessness. And contrary to our images of the affluent stay-at-home dad, poor fathers with employed wives were significantly more likely to care for their preschoolers than their more affluent peers.[3]

Given our socialization, reversing traditional gender roles isn’t going to be easy for couples. Randi Minetor, author of Breadwinner Wives and the Men They Marry, cautions that this arrangement isn’t for everyone. Money tensions are often the result of insufficient communication and honesty about each partner’s perception of marriage, she points out. Both men and women must be clear about their idea of the “natural order” of family relationships, about money, about the wife being a working mother—and should continue to revisit these conversations as economic circumstances change.

Demographics Matter: Education and Age

The effects of the recession are likely to differ based on two demographic variables: education and age. As researchers watch for the impacts of this recession on gender and family and wait for data to tell a more complete story, education and age will be two key factors to follow.

Education: The recession will have a minimal impact on family formation patterns of college-educated men and women, as college-educated young adults have been marrying at higher rates than their less-educated peers. Among 35- to 39-year-old women, some 88 percent with advanced degrees have married, versus 81 percent of women without college degrees, according to Current Population survey data.

Among those without college degrees, the picture is less rosy. Historically, men’s labor problems have been linked to lower rates of marriage,[4] and this State of Our Unions indicates this pattern is repeating in the current recession. In addition, to marry has become equated with an expensive wedding celebration—something that many feel they cannot afford—and cohabitation rates are highest among the poor and less educated.

Less-educated men and working class families have been the most severely impacted by this economic recession, but also may be the least willing to make changes in their daily division of labor. Researchers from Penn State University suggest that flexible or egalitarian gender roles may be more attractive to well-educated, affluent Americans than to less-educated, working-class couples. In their 2008 book, Alone Together: How Marriage in America is Changing, Paul Amato and his colleagues find working-class wives would prefer to work fewer hours outside the home—or not at all—and viewed the traditional breadwinner-homemaker model as more desirable.

Age: Like Kevin, this generation of younger Americans holds more egalitarian attitudes toward gender than do previous generations, and in turn will be better able to adapt to the changing realities of this economic recession. Data from the 2000-2006 General Social Survey (gss) indicate Americans under 35 are more likely to disagree that “it is better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family” than Americans over 55, and more likely to agree that “a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work” than their parents’ generation. Specifically, the gss shows that just 27 percent of adults under 35 believe that it is better for men to focus on breadwinning and women on homemaking, compared to 58 percent of Americans over 55. These data also show that 77 percent of young adults believe that working mothers can “establish just as warm and secure” relationships with their children, compared to 68 percent of older adults.

But for middle-aged couples like Michael and Virginia, changing roles within a long-term marriage is more challenging. “We’re pretty set in our ways,” Virginia says. “We can make small adjustments, but we really do take longer to adapt.”

The Silver Lining

The Great Recession’s silver lining of increasing gender flexibility and equality is most likely to apply to better educated and younger Americans than to less educated older Americans. That is, young-adults with a college education have the best chance at adaptation and change.

The stock market may begin to inch up slowly, but job losses and financial uncertainties will continue to have serious impacts on families for years to come. Among the most vulnerable are single-parent families and fragile cohabiting unions of the poor, and the most resilient will be the educated, dual-career couples who are able to adapt to more flexible family earning and caregiving arrangements. It is within this latter group that we can most hope for a boost for gender equality within marriage and a recognition that the American family can continue to thrive even when it is the wife and mother who is the primary breadwinner, and the husband and father who is the primary caregiver.

  1. Christie F. Boxer and Christine B. Whelan, “Working Paper on Changing Mate Preferences 1939-2008,” Unpublished manuscript, Department of Sociology, University of Iowa (2009).
  2. Jeffry H. Larson, Stephan M. Wilson and Rochelle Beley, “The impact of job insecurity on marital and family relationships,” Family Relations 43 (April 1994), 138-143.
  3. Lynne M. Casper, “My Daddy Takes Care of Me! Fathers as Care Providers,” Current Population Reports, P70-59, Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau (September 1997), Household Economic Studies.
  4. Ahituv, Avner and Robert I. Lerman. “How Do Marital Status, Work Effort, and Wage Rates Interact?” Demography 44.3 (2007), 623-647.