Women in World 1: The Big Flip


The Great Recession has accelerated a dramatic shift in gender roles: Women in World 1 are surpassing their male peers in income, education, and professional attainment, while many men are losing ground economically. In countries ranging from Japan to Singapore, France, Norway, Canada, and the United States, these shifts are shaking up longstanding social and economic patterns.

The impacts appear to be most pronounced in the US, where within a generation “more households will be supported by women than by men,” writes Liza Mundy, a Washington Post reporter and author of The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family.1 In what Mundy dubs the Big Flip, almost 40% of working wives in the US are now “breadwomen”—their household’s primary breadwinner, out-earning their husbands.

Throughout World 1, the number of breadwomen will grow for at least a generation, backed by powerful drivers such as women’s accelerating educational achievements and the global shift from labor-based to knowledge-based industries. As a result, young women entering World 1 job markets today “are poised to become the most financially powerful generation of women in history,” Mundy maintains.

Businesses will be deeply affected by the Big Flip, as men’s and women’s roles and expectations around work, love, money, and family life change all over World 1. Here, we look at how the rise of breadwomen is taking shape; explores a positive vision of the future that could result; and considers the implications for businesses. In Women Rising—World 1 (Part 2), specific outcomes for women, men, and societies will be examined in greater depth, along with how businesses can gain from these emerging realities.


The Great Recession of 2008–2009 strengthened and accelerated trends in male/ female workforce participation that were already underway.

As recently as 1970, a mere 4% of American wives out- earned their husbands. That share rose steadily for the next three and a half decades, to 22% in 2007.2 Then, when the recession hit in 2009, it spiked to almost 38% as men lost three-fourths of the 7 million US jobs that evaporated.

The share of US women supporting their families single-handedly rose to an all-time high of 7%—nearly 4 million women—while the share of men who were sole breadwinners sank to 18%.

This sudden jump in breadwomen, triggered by the Great Recession, was partly temporary; unemployment for men has since fallen, more than it has for women.6 But trends related to the situations of both women and men should ensure that the Big Flip will continue to strengthen for more than a generation.

Women’s rise in the US

The Big Flip is most advanced in the US, due to a variety of well- established trends.

  • Women are better-educated. Education is the single strongest predictor of lifetime earnings, and women are now the better-educated gender in America. Women earn the majority of associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorates.7 This holds true across all racial groups and all socioeconomic strata; in fact, the gender gap in education is widest at lower income levels.
  • Women dominate the fastest-growing professions. Nine of the 10 job categories expected to grow the most through 2020 are dominated by women.8 Moreover, these sectors (education, healthcare, local government, etc.) are comparatively recession- proof, leaving women less vulnerable to cyclical ups and downs.
  • Women’s attitudes are changing. Young women today “want their own money,” Mundy writes. “They are acutely aware of the fragility of marriage and the danger of dependency…. They have seen what happened to their mothers, for whom the marriage contract hardly turned out to be insurance.”

In addition, men’s attitudes are changing. While the decline in working men is due primarily to high unemployment rates, “a growing number of men no longer aspire to work at all,” Mundy writes:

  • Older men are choosing freedom. Many skilled workers who lost their jobs to outsourcing or the recession are unwilling to take jobs below their skill level. As one laid-off steelworker, 53, said, “I have come to realize that my free time is worth more to me.”
  • Some younger men are choosing to focus on fatherhood rather than career. Since the 1970s, the number of stay-at- home dads in the US has doubled to more than 500,000, or about 3.4% of American men (a conservative estimate that includes only full-time non-working fathers).
  • As Millennials move into family formation, this trend is likely to speed up: the share of men under 29 who say they want more responsibility in their jobs fell to 68% in 2008, down from 80% in 1992. And those who were fathers spent twice as much time with their kids—four hours per workday—than did young fathers in 1977, while the share who said their mate spent more time on childcare dropped to 46%, from 58% in 1992.

The wage gap is closing.

Since women have historically earned less than men for the same work, will breadwomen be supporting their families on lower incomes than men have? Mundy argues no—because the gender wage gap is shrinking:
  • In the US, the ratio of women’s to men’s average earnings has steadily grown from 62% in 1979 to 81% in 2010.16 Furthermore, the remaining gap lags a variety of important shifts, such as women’s surge into higher-paid professions, so it will shrink further as these changes take hold.
  • The wage gap is narrowest among younger workers (where women’s education gains are concentrated). In most US cities, the median income for childless single women in their 20s already exceeds that of their male peers—suggesting another reason the gap will narrow in coming years.

Not only that, but fewer men are working. Just 80% of American men work now, and only 66% of those in the prime working years of 25– 64 work full-time. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2018, men’s workforce participation will fall to historic lows.18 This should serve to make women’s contribution to family or household income that much more important.

  • Men are receiving less support for education. A 2011 survey by Pew found 40% of female college grads saying their parents paid for most of their undergrad education, versus just 29% of male grads.19 Social and familial support, too, is lower for men’s education, at least at blue-collar levels; in an Alaskan study of working-class families, 76% of girls but only 41% of boys said their parents encouraged them to go to college, and 18% of the boys were actually discouraged from going.
  • Nationally, 77% of Americans now say that women need a college education in order to get ahead in life, but just 68% say this about men.
  • And, childcare decisions are being made pragmatically. Studies have found that in both heterosexual and same-sex couples, the mate who stays home with the children is usually the one with less education—suggesting that in many families, childcare decisions are being made based on earning potential rather than on gender.

Women’s rise elsewhere in World 1

The Big Flip is becoming as much of a force in Europe, Japan, and South Korea as in the US.

In the EK: Single young women in the UK make more on average than their male peers, and 25% of women in couples earn more than their husbands do.

In the EU: Young European women are moving rapidly into high-paying, previously male-dominated professions. For example, among doctors under 35, women account for 54% in the UK, 58% in France, and 64% in Spain.

In Japan: By 2050, Japanese women “will be the most educated human beings on the planet,” with 80% holding college degrees—compared to 60% of Japanese men that year.


  • Companies, NGOs, and government agencies will increasingly need to craft products and marketing messages toward women who are their family’s primary—or sole—breadwinner. This will require reshaping marketing in multiple ways; for instance, rising education levels mean rising aspirations, so women could become an even larger share of luxury buyers. Ultimately, marketing to breadwomen might require companies to revamp their consumer segmentations. In another shift, companies will need to recognize that family decisions increasingly conform to the woman’s career, e.g., with the man following his spouse when her job requires relocation.
  • More young women today feel driven to support themselves financially, with minimal dependence on men. Meanwhile, more young men are seeking the kind of work/ life balance and flexibility that women employees have traditionally pursued. Part 2 of this series will explore outcomes for both men and women in greater depth, but these values shifts pertain across Western World 1 societies undergoing the Big Flip and should be increasingly factored into both consumer marketing and human resources practices.
  • Young single women are becoming prime homebuyers—buying homes at twice the rate of single men and nearly as much as married couples with children— according to James Chung, president of Reach Advisors. On the flipside, young men are more likely to be living with their parents. This will need to be factored into real estate and community planning; product development and marketing for home furnishing and décor companies; and DIY and other retail channels.