Image: Victor1558 (Flickr)

I’ve just finished reading The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family, by Liza Mundy, a Washington Post reporter.

Mundy closely examines what she calls the Big Flip: the rapid trend toward millions of women in the US, Western Europe, and East Asia becoming the primary breadwinner in their households. In the US alone, nearly 40% of working wives now outearn their husbands, Mundy reports.

It’s really striking to consider how gender roles will shift as a result of the Big Flip. Young women entering the job market today “are poised to become the most financially powerful generation of women in history,” Mundy observes. That’s right—“in history.” And even more important, this power your daughter or sister or girlfriend or wife will hold will be broadly collective—not solitary as has been the case for the independently wealthy women who have peppered past generations. How will she handle it?

And, of course, how will men handle it? Actually, a good chunk likely won’t mind much: for at least three decades, growing numbers of men have been willingly downshifting their careers and spending more time with their families, up to and including being the househusband. One former auto-industry manager touchingly confided to Mundy that after he got downsized, he began telling people, “I didn’t lose anything—I got promoted from one day a week [with my kids] to seven.”

Nevertheless, the Big Flip represents the deepest and widest shakeup of Western gender roles in centuries. Many people will find adaptation difficult; there’s already a growing trend of Western men traveling to places like Thailand to find traditionally minded wives. And many women breadwinners themselves are surprised by how ambivalent they feel about their new role and the tradeoffs it imposes on their lifestyles and relationships.

But adjust we must. Barring some unforeseen discontinuity, the powerful educational, economic, and social drivers behind the Big Flip ensure it will continue for at least another generation. We may be about to learn the answers to some seriously big questions, such as: Are traditional gender roles more rooted in nature or nurture? Are our current work arrangements deeply “male” in some way? And maybe even: what do women want?

 

As analysts of social change, one trend we monitor is the dramatic, ongoing evolution of the American family. The Leave It to Beaver model of married-couple-with-kids, plus the odd dog or gerbil, now fits less than one-fifth of US households. Instead, many more people are living in “voluntary” families composed of (or at least including) self-selected, non-biological, non-married relationships.

Now a study led by Dawn Braithwaite, a social scientist at the University of Nebraska, has examined the trend more deeply, identifying four types of voluntary families:

  • Supplemental families, the most prevalent type, develop when a person’s relatives are geographically or emotionally distant.
  • Substitute families stand in for relatives who are absent, for example due to estrangement or death.
  • Convenience families are temporary ones formed during college or a rehabilitation period, for instance.
  • Extended families augment a biological unit, such as multiple single parents and their children living together for mutual support.

For the people who choose them, voluntary kin are “different from close or best friends in that they are expected to be permanent relationships and to fulfill roles played by family members,” explains Braithwaite. Indeed, members often use familial terminology such as “she’s like a sister to me.” The trend is likely to continue: as Braithwaite says, “Most people [in them] find voluntary families important and a great source of understanding, companionship, and support.”

Image: toastforbrekkie (Flickr)

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