An extraordinary shift in gender roles is underway throughout World 1 according to Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy, who has dubbed this discontinuity “the Big Flip.” In her book “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family,” she notes that almost 40 percent of working wives in the United States are now “breadwomen” — their household’s primary breadwinner. And the trend is escalating through other World 1 societies, including Western Europe and Scandinavia, Japan, and South Korea.
Men, not just women, are driving the Big Flip through their choices and circumstances. They won’t necessarily lose out, and many will find surprising benefits in the new arrangements. Yet for both genders, the Big Flip will upset social dynamics that have long served as the basis for family and economic life.
An expert in the biology of relationships, anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher explains: “It’s a time of dramatic adjustment for both men and women, a kind of adjustment we really haven’t been required to make in 10,000 years.”
3 KEY FINDINGS
- The Big Flip is upending gender roles that have long served as the foundation of World 1 societies, with both social and economic implications.
- Many men will trade in high- powered careers for more supportive and varied roles.
- Acceptance of the trend varies, and East Asian societies are struggling with the rise of women breadwinners.
3 OUTCOMES FOR WOMEN
Women are reevaluating what they want from men: The Big Flip is leading many women to question exactly what they want from men. Indeed, many young women with advanced degrees and high-paying jobs are wondering why they need a mate at all. Betsy Soler, a senior at Florida International University, was already earning $70,000 as director of the school’s social media program when she told Mundy, “I almost feel like guys aren’t necessary anymore, and it’s kind of a terrible thing.” Women will deal with this new quandary in varied ways:
- More women will delay marriage. The median age of first marriage has been rising steeply in Western World 1; in the US, it reached a record 28 for men, 26 for women in 2010. (See GL-2011-3: US Marriage.)5 In Asian World 1, the numbers are even more dramatic—and the outcomes are more serious. A cultural norm in Asia that women should “marry up” remains entrenched, creating a society-wide crisis in marriage and birthrates. With fewer men at or above their levels of education and accomplishment, up to one-third of women in their early 30s in Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong have never married; in Japan, half of those never will. Unlike Europe, East Asia retains a taboo against single motherhood, which means that fertility rates in the region have fallen below replacement levels, to an average of 1.6 children per woman.
- More women will skip marriage. While it remains to be seen how many in the rising generation of breadwomen will marry, African-American women may provide a clue: they are more likely than white women to have higher education and income than their male mates, and nearly 70% are single. In fact, “college-educated black women are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be unmarried,” according to Ralph Richard Banks, a Stanford law professor. While there may be other reasons for this besides the educational imbalance, the pattern is nonetheless likely to spread as women continue their rise up the socioeconomic and educational ladder.
- The male-female “bargain” will change. Masculinity, historically, has meant providing, protecting, and procreating.10 In a breadwomen’s world, one burning issue is how men will provide. Helen Fisher, who serves as an advisor to the dating site Match.com, argues, “There are many ways that a man can provide without having a lot of money. I’ve always said, as women’s roles expand, men’s roles get to expand, too.” For instance, male traits like supportiveness will gain importance; a survey of 20 executive women found that the quality they felt most grateful for in their husbands was a willingness to listen and be emotionally attentive. “I can’t imagine having gotten where I was without him,” said one.
Women will broaden their criteria for finding mates: Across the socioeconomic spectrum, women still want mates who are at least their equals, but as women continue to outstrip men in education and earning, many will need to rethink these parameters.
- More women will “marry down,” pairing with men whose education and income levels are less than their own. This is already occurring all over World 1, not only in the US but also in France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Israel.19 In 2007 in the US, 28% of wives age 30–44 had more education than their spouses, versus only 19% of husbands. Among female college graduates, 36% were married to a man who was not college-educated, up six percentage points since 1970.
- Women will find men who match their leisure interests. Instead of seeking men who match them in education or earning potential, women may place more importance on finding mates who share their extracurricular passions, and mate choice may come to depend more on a third domain beyond earning and education.
- More women will marry younger men. As traditional roles lose sway and couples increasingly match around pure chemistry and shared interests, rather than educational or cultural commonalities, age differences will likely matter less. One outcome could be that the “cougar” stigma gives way to acceptance of partnerships in which the woman is older and farther along in her career and life goals.
Women will face their own ambivalence: The Great Recession forced many women to abruptly leave their familiar lives behind, taking jobs or promotions they wouldn’t have if their mates were working. A national study of singles led by Helen Fisher in 2011 for Match.com found that while 45% of men said they are ready to step up to the “househusband” role, only one-third of women said they are ready to accept men in that role. Specific issues include:
- A new relationship to mothering. Many women hate adjusting to a more distant mothering role, and envy their male partners’ time at home with the children. Worried that they’re abdicating a primary responsibility, some feel guilty. They will feel taken aback when other adults in their children’s lives— teachers, other parents—know their child’s father on a first- name basis but have no idea who the mother is. Yet, for many breadwomen, watching their children enjoy a new intimacy with their dads provides a rich sense of compensation.
- Changing sex lives. Other women may find themselves losing attraction for mates who seem over-domesticated. Across the board, women Mundy interviewed wanted their mates to stay motivated and growing even when not working. “The whole point of life is living and learning. He’s got to be more than a nice guy,” said Alicia Simpson, an African-American psychiatrist who ended up divorcing her stay-at-home mate.
- More stress in Asia. Asian breadwomen have significant additional challenges. Asian societies typically offer few part- time jobs, and most still expect women to handle all household tasks—from cooking and cleaning, to caring for both children and elderly relatives—even if they are working full-time. Japanese wives who work spend an average of 30 hours per week on housework; their husbands spend three.
3 OUTCOMES FOR MEN
Millions of men will feel challenged by the Big Flip, confronting the loss of deep-seated roles they have played throughout history, and which, as males, they may even be biologically hardwired for. But others will welcome the new freedom and choices spawned by the shift. Mundy identifies three options for men as they confront the Big Flip:
- Some will resist.
- Some will give up.
- Some will adapt and change.
3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS
- All signs point to companies benefitting by adopting new breadwomen-friendly policies. Companies that want to get ahead of the curve might start by interviewing breadwomen in their organizations to learn exactly what their needs are and responding in creative ways. For example, as detailed above, many breadwomen are uncomfortable with the impacts of their new role on their relationships with spouses and kids; employers might respond by sponsoring more frequent “Take Your Child to Work Days” or evening childcare opportunities that allow spouses a new freedom for “date nights” without the kids in tow. In fact, a new body of best practices may grow around serving the needs of breadwomen employees and their families, and companies that can establish a reputation as breadwomen-friendly—which may mean taking “family- friendly” a step further—are likely to attract top talent and benefit in the long term from this ability.
- Men will want and need to sustain a sense of purpose as their roles change. There could be large opportunities in providing the tools, supplies, and services men need to help them expand into new areas outside their traditional domain of work. Mundy surmises that sports like hunting, golf, and fishing will regain popularity; nonprofit and volunteer work will also receive new focus. Additionally, there will be large opportunities to help men contribute to housework, meal preparation, family transport and scheduling, and parenting in general in new, more guy-friendly ways. Finally, as suggested above, the trend to more high-tech, smart, and interactive home systems is also likely to be strengthened by the Big Flip as homes become more “masculinized.” Separate man-caves could disappear as entire houses are transformed into more gadget- and technology- infused spaces.
- Companies that sell to Japanese consumers (or want to) should keep a close eye on how the government responds to issues and opportunities around marriage, birthrates, and women’s work. Goldman Sachs has made a compelling case that for Japan, “womenomics”—i.e., improving gender parity in both the social and economic spheres—could be a singularly effective way to help the country out of its tragic decades-long slump.