The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Familyby Liza Mundy
A revolution is under way.
Within a generation, more households will be supported by women than by men. In The Richer Sex, Liza Mundy takes us to the exciting frontier of this new economic order: she shows us why this flip is inevitable, what painful adjustments will have to be made along the way, and how both men and women will feel/i>/b>
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A revolution is under way.
Within a generation, more households will be supported by women than by men. In The Richer Sex, Liza Mundy takes us to the exciting frontier of this new economic order: she shows us why this flip is inevitable, what painful adjustments will have to be made along the way, and how both men and women will feel surprisingly liberated in the end.
The bestselling author and Washington Post writer goes deep inside the lives of the couples on this cutting edge to paint of picture of how dating, marriage, and home life are changing. How does this new generation of breadwomen navigate paying for a night on the town? In whose interest is it to delay commitment? Are men for the first time thinking of marriage the way women used to—as a bet on the economic potential of a spouse? In this new world of men marrying up, are women learning to value new realms of male endeavor—like parenting, protection, and a margarita at the ready?
The future is here, with couples today debating who must assume the responsibility of primary earner and who gets the freedom of being the slow track partner. With more men choosing to stay home, Mundy shows how that lifestyle has achieved a higher status and all the ways males have found to recover their masculinity. And the revolution is global: Mundy takes us from Japan to Denmark to show how both sexes are adapting as the marriage market has turned into a giant free-for-all, with men and women at different stages of this transformation finding partners in other countries who match their expectations.
The Richer Sex is a wild ride into the future, grounded in Mundy’s peerless journalism, and bound to cause women and men of all generations to rethink what this social upheaval will mean.
“Liza Mundy has written a visionary, optimistic, inspiring book about the future of gender relations in America. She writes with verve, rigor and a keen sense for the unexpected. This is the rare book about the future that not only tells you where we’re headed by why we should want to arrive.” —Steve Coll, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and president of the New America Foundation
“Liza Mundy has done something remarkable: she has taken all the major social and economic threads of the past decade, and woven them into a tapestry that explains, well . . . everything. About love, and sex, and family, and work, and the past and the future, and men and women and children. And she has not only written a book that’s important, but also one that's a great read.” —Lisa Belkin, author of First, Do No Harm and Life’s Work
“It is an exciting time to witness changing standards in family life: women in charge, men raising babies, both longing for passion and affection. In The Richer Sex, Liza Mundy asks the poignant questions of how and why these changes are occurring. She deftly examines who wins, who loses, and who is left on the battlefields of love, sex, and money.” —Dr. Justin R. Garcia, author and Research Fellow, The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction
“Will the world change once women make up the majority of breadwinners? It assuredly will, and Liza Mundy gives us a fascinating advance report on the sweeping transformations—in romance, economics, politics and family life—headed our way. They will make all our lives better, and Mundy is the first to bring us the good news.” —Annie Murphy Paul, author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives
“Ambitious . . . Separating The Richer Sex from earlier manifestos and exposés about women . . . is Mundy’s fresh reporting and the reams of new social science research she summarizes to make her case.” —Rachel Shteir, The New York Times Book Review
"A fascinating look at a trend that promises major social changes." —Booklist
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The grown-up Hawkins siblings can’t tell you why it happened, or pinpoint when, exactly, they noticed the change in their family. Maybe somebody pointed it out at their annual Christmas gathering, or during one of the big reunions the Hawkins family holds every other summer. Or maybe there never was an aha moment. The knowledge just settled in until it became a fact they all knew, but hardly thought twice about. We have become a family of female earners.
Which was not how the siblings had been raised.
The siblings—there are six of them—grew up in the Detroit, Michigan, suburbs. Their mother, Marcelle Hawkins, had all six in less than six years, completing her childbearing by the time she was twenty-five and staying home to raise them. Their father, Gary, supported the family by working as an engineer for Ford. He didn’t graduate from college, because in the 1960s and 1970s a man working for the U.S. auto industry didn’t need to. During his career Gary Hawkins helped launch the Pinto, visited assembly plants and solved their problems, traveled to help open factories in other regions, and as his wife puts it, “had his hand raised” every time Ford needed an engineer to work overtime. His chief regret, in retirement, is how little he saw of the children as they grew.
In contrast to his father, the oldest Hawkins sibling, Danny, graduated from the University of Michigan and married a woman whose earning potential was as high as or higher than his was. Danny took a job in financial services but was reluctant to work the crushing overtime load his bosses expected, so in the mid-1990s he left to become the happy, fulfilled hands-on parent to their two daughters, a stay-at-home father before the term got trendy. According to his own mother, Danny runs a household every bit as well as she did. He shops and cooks with such exactitude that he rarely ends up with leftovers, maintains a budgeting system that involves placing portions of money in a box with sections designated for specific uses, keeps a color-coded family appointment calendar, and has a stair step for each member on which he places packages and other belongings. On Halloween, for fun, he tried doing a statistical analysis of trick-or-treaters to gauge how much candy to buy the following year but decided there were too many unpredictable variables. Over the years, Danny has served as treasurer of the PTA, treasurer of the music boosters, treasurer of the co-op preschool, treasurer of their homeowners association, and sympathizing treasurer of the golf club they belong to. In the evenings he is happy to listen to the workday accounts of his wife, Susan, a senior vice president with the Henry Ford Health System, with her challenges and sharing in her triumphs.
“I have told Susie several times that my job is to make her life easier,” says Danny. “And I like doing it.”
Meanwhile, Danny’s younger sister Leslie works in supply-chain management for a Michigan transportation and logistics company, where she has risen to be part of the top leadership team. Her own husband, Damon, who everybody thought would be a hotshot corporate lawyer and the main breadwinner in the family, instead stepped back to become the secondary earner, working as a real estate broker and becoming the on-call parent for their three children. Like his brother-in-law Danny, Damon cooks, ambitiously; golfs, formidably; drives children to lessons and sports games; cleans house; and is so comfortably domesticated that when some neighbors arrived for a card game and Damon answered the door holding a dust cloth, the neighborhood began calling him “Coco.” Damon, who is known for his humor, embraced the nickname and the reputation for housekeeping excellence that goes with it.
Another grown-up Hawkins sibling, Rhonda, had no idea what she wanted to do with her life when she was a young adult. In college, Rhonda changed majors so many times she stopped counting. Eventually she switched to night classes and took a job as a receptionist at Magna International, a company that supplies systems and components to the auto industry. She began working in marketing, got her degree in that field, and did so well that she finds herself—though she is too self-deprecating to allow that this is a big deal—the company’s head of global marketing. Her husband, Hank, works in the restaurant business and loves what he does, but scaled back his hours when Rhonda got a promotion that required her to take extensive overseas trips on short notice.
Another Hawkins sibling, Lori, who works in finance, is in a committed relationship with another woman; both contribute monetarily to the household.
The other Hawkins daughter, Shelly, is a divorced mother of two, supporting her own household with a job in the health-care field.
Out of the six adult children of Gary and Marcelle Hawkins, only one—Michael—is in a traditional marriage where he has filled the role of primary earner.
Six adult siblings. Five households supported by women. One generation. One complete economic flip.
It’s a profound change in the balance of economic power, a striking role reversal and one that was unplanned, barely noticed, in fact, sneaking up on the Hawkins family when nobody was looking. In a matter of decades, the traditional male breadwinner model has given way to one where women routinely support households and outearn the men they are married to, and nobody cares or thinks it’s odd. The Hawkins family—sane, functional, rooted in a midwestern state known for family values—offers a convincing vision of what America is becoming. We are entering an era where women, not men, will become the top earners in households. We are entering the era in which roles will flip, as resoundingly as they have done in this family. You laugh, but that Big Flip is just around the corner.
Not that long ago, in 1970, the percentage of U.S. wives who outearned their husbands was in the low single digits. Some of these women were super-achievers, but more often they were women married to men who were ailing, drifting, unsteady, or unemployable. For generations, female breadwinners were mostly poor women—women whose husbands had difficulty providing. Forty years later, this template has changed dramatically, as the forces that produce female breadwinners have become more powerful and varied. Almost 40 percent of U.S. working wives now outearn their husbands, a percentage that has risen steeply in this country and many others, as more women have entered the workforce and remained committed to it. Women occupy 51 percent of managerial and professional jobs in the United States, and they dominate nine of the ten U.S. job categories expected to grow the most in the next decade.
Part of this ascent is due to the gradual lifting of discriminatory practices that once funneled women into lower-paying sectors and obliged them to quit work when they got married. Part is due to long-term changes in the economy that have chipped away at male sectors like construction and manufacturing while bringing big increases in women’s fields such as education and health care. And a large part is due to women’s own grit and initiative, evidenced by the fact that women now outnumber men on college campuses in the United States as well as around the world. By the year 2050, demographers forecast, there will be 140 college-educated women in the United States for every 100 college-educated men. Globally, a generation of young women is entering the job market who are better educated than young men are, and poised to become the most financially powerful generation of women in history. In coming years, economists—who study major transitions such as the rise of agrarian society, the dawn of the industrial age, the ascent of the white-collar office worker, the opening of the global economy—will look back and see this as the era when women realized their earning power and, for the first time, outpaced their partners. “The trends are clear,” agrees Gary Becker, the Nobel Prize–winning economist at the University of Chicago who pioneered the economic study of families, even predicting that “we could see a day where women, on average, are earning more than men.”
In addition to the changes it will bring to the economy and the workplace, the rise of women earners will shape human behavior by challenging some of the most primal and hardwired ways men and women see one another. It will alter how we mate, how and when we join together, how we procreate and raise children, and, to use the phrase of the founders, how we pursue happiness. It will reshape the landscape of the heart. This is a book about how men and women are changing all those things already, and how these changes will play out in the future.
Think the Hawkinses are an anomaly? A fluke? Consider Jessica Gasca, a resident of South Texas who works as a paralegal, supporting a husband and three children. Jessica likes being in the workforce. She prefers it to staying home. So her husband, Juan, watches the children and takes part-time jobs in customer service. “Our kids see me as the father,” says Jessica, who has several sisters who also are breadwinners in their households. These women, to their surprise, have emerged as dominant earners in their immigrant Hispanic community, a culture with strong patriarchal values yet one in which women are outstripping men even more rapidly than in the nation as a whole. For many, this creates profound discomfort. “My mom always says: ‘All my daughters—I’ve never taught you to be that way. I can’t believe it.’ She says that we’re providing for the man, when it should be the other way around.”
Or consider Alicia Simpson, a psychiatrist, and her sister, Tracy Parker, a banker. Both women are graduates of Howard University, an elite, historically black university in Washington, D.C., where nearly 70 percent of the student body is female. Alicia and Tracy, both in their forties, both mothers, grew up in a male-breadwinning family, and over dinner they tried to remember what they had expected starting out in their marriages, and to understand how it was that they ended up primary earners.
“I always figured it would be a partnership,” said Alicia. “Everybody sort of carrying his own weight.” For these sisters, the change was so disconcerting that their marriages foundered. Alicia divorced her husband—“I had to push him out of the nest; it was like, either you’re going to fly, or you’re going to perish”—while Tracy worked through her resentment and struggled to accept her role. “My husband’s a great dad and I need him there,” said Tracy. “So it was a mind-set that I had to develop.”
Consider Rita Radzilowski and her sister, Ginette Trottier, both raised in a working-class family, both college graduates. Ginette, a nurse, married a business analyst who underwent a stretch of unemployment in the recent recession, when his company was sold and many positions were pushed overseas. Around the same time, Rita, who has an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree—among other credentials—dated a professional brickmason who also lost his job. Neither man graduated from a four-year college. Both face a changing economy where high-paying jobs for non-grads are on the decline. The sisters adjusted by setting their own sights even higher. Rita is preparing to embark on a doctorate and Ginette moved into management and began to consider medical school. It seems clear to Ginette that she may remain the top earner in her marriage—or at least the one with the more reliable paycheck—so she might as well maximize that income as a doctor rather than a nurse. “I want to do it,” she said. “I want to make more money. I might as well do it. I know it’s a lot of work. I understand.”
Or meet Jill Singer, raised on a farm on the outskirts of Boise, Idaho, with the expectation that she would work hard in life but should not expect to earn much for her labor, because earning money was a man’s domain. When she was growing up in the 1970s, Jill and her sisters were expected to do agricultural chores alongside their brothers. “By the time we were tall enough to push a lawn mower, that’s when we started working,” Jill remembers. “But we were also supposed to do inside chores. The boys could come inside and sit, but the girls were expected to do cooking and sewing and mend the shirts.” She was raised in the Mormon Church, which—like a number of traditional religions—teaches that the husband provides for, and presides over, the family. Growing up, Jill learned that public space belonged to men and private domestic space to women. “Men were responsible for the ‘outside’—income and discipline—and women were responsible for the ‘inside’—budgeting for a household, raising the children, staying home and making sure the husband is happy,” is how Jill summarizes her upbringing. “I was never led to expect that I would be a primary breadwinner. Ever.” Yet Jill now works in construction management and earns twice as much as her husband. Thumbtacked to a bulletin board in her mud room is the church’s proclamation on the family, which articulates the man-as-provider philosophy. She doesn’t pay much attention to it—believing that it has nothing to do with church doctrine, and everything to do with church politics—and expects any day now to be relieved of her duties as a Sunday school teacher, relating gospel principles to children on the verge of being baptized. She tells her daughters, “Don’t believe everything that comes from the pulpit.” All three of her sisters, she notes, make the bulk of their family income.
“My parents are so pleased with us,” says Jill. “They are tickled pink at how we women turned out.”
And finally, consider four young women sitting at an outdoor table in midtown Atlanta, Georgia, on a balmy Saturday in late winter. Two are engineers, one is a banker, and another is an entrepreneur. All are in their early twenties. All earn between $65,000 and $90,000, just a couple of years out of college. In most American cities, single childless women between 22 and 30 make more, in terms of median income, than their male peers, a direct result of the fact that women are now better-educated than men. Of all the major cities where young women outearn young men, Atlanta is number one. Well do these women know the accuracy of that statistic. “I have never had a boyfriend who made more than me,” says one of them. Over steak salads and spring rolls, the Atlanta women share techniques on how to make the men they date feel comfortable, and as they talk it becomes clear they are also describing how they make themselves feel comfortable. One likes to let her boyfriend drive her car. She carries lots of petty cash—singles and fives—so she can discreetly pay for tips and parking and entrance fees in a way that seems less obtrusive than flashing around a credit card. “You never actually show them how much money it’s costing,” she says. “You never want them to be aware of how much work you’re putting in.”
She adds: “I want at the end of the night for someone not to remember who paid.”
Another woman at the table buys movie tickets in advance, and then tells her boyfriend they were given away at work. This same woman recently got a promotion at the consulting company she works for, along with a raise higher than she expected. She struggled to know how to share this with her boyfriend, a manager at a Waffle House who took that job because it was the only one he could find that was near her. She loves her work, and her boyfriend hates his, and the day after her big news he was in tears over how thankless and chaotic his own job is. How do you handle that? How do you celebrate your success when the man you love is floundering? Even when he is supportive and happy for you? And what do you tell people who wonder why you are dating a guy who works at a Waffle House? These are the kinds of questions women find themselves asking. “What’s she doing with this guy?” she says. “That’s what I imagine them thinking.”
This book will look at the many ways relationships are changing as women increase their earnings, overtaking the men in their lives in numbers unprecedented up to now. It will draw on interviews with hundreds of men and women, with a diversity of age and race and backgrounds, people who have one key thing in common: they are living firsthand the profound impact of these major economic changes. People interviewed for this book sometimes spoke individually, sometimes in couples, sometimes in wide-ranging conversations with groups of friends and colleagues. They live in the industrial regions of the Midwest and the immigrant-rich floodplains of South Texas, in college dorms and in trendy downtown areas of major cities around the country. They live in other countries, too, in places as disparate as Denmark and Japan, where the same forces are at work with markedly different outcomes. In Japan, economic power has altered women’s behavior so profoundly that some observers believe they have traded personalities with men. And this book captures insights offered by polls and studies, conducted by a range of experts charting women’s rise and its emotional consequences. It offers predictions about what will happen as women dominate the classroom and the workplace, in the United States but also globally. It predicts who will marry whom, who will stay single, who will struggle; who will prevail; how relationships will evolve. How sex will change. How children will respond. What decisions college-educated women will make, looking out at a pool of mates who are less accomplished than they are. These are issues that economists and other experts are watching closely as they try to understand the biggest revolution under way in American society since the age of industry gave full expression to the idea that men are the wage earners, and cemented it so firmly that some still believe it to be an immutable law, handed down by God or, alternately, by Darwin.
For sure, things could go badly. As countries all over the world move away from the industrial era model of male breadwinner and female homemaker, there are those who predict a genuine war between men and women: a long-lasting power struggle and protracted renegotiation as women try to get men to provide more encouragement—and do more housework—and men cling to the status and authority they used to enjoy. As more women enter the workforce and succeed, some will find themselves doubly burdened—entrusted with bread-winning responsibilities but awarded few of the perks men have long commanded. A cynic might predict that as more women become the dominant earners, moneymaking will lose its prestige and suddenly there will be nothing so respected as being … a stay-at-home father, raising children and tending the household.
Over the years, research and casual observation have tended to suggest that men do not react well when women outperform them. “Men know that women are an over-match for them, and therefore they choose the weakest or most ignorant,” observed Samuel Johnson in the 18th century. A number of studies have supported this intuition, suggesting that families with economically dominant women are more likely to split up, in part because men are more likely to stray or retaliate against women who overshadow them. In 2011, a study confirmed that women who win Oscars for Best Actress are at higher risk of divorce, whereas Best Actor winners are not. And now the problem of husbands who feel eclipsed (or outshone) isn’t just an issue for the Reese Witherspoons and Sandra Bullocks of the world. It’s an issue for noncelebrities—for English majors, law students, registered nurses, young women starting businesses, you name it. “I think about this all the time,” messaged one young woman in an email, expressing how it felt to belong to the first generation of female college graduates who outnumber male graduates, and to look around and wonder whom you will ever marry. One 34-year-old software engineer working in Washington, D.C., said it took years for her to find a man to date who was comfortable with her salary. When she would meet men and tell them what she does for a living, the men would say things like “You must be one of those smart women!” and look alarmed. So she began telling men she was a music teacher, which was technically true, since she is also a violinist, and does some teaching. This worked better, she says, until about the third date, when she told them what she really did. “They would stop calling.”
So yes, men can react badly, but the full truth is more complicated, and more optimistic. The negative studies, which confirm fondly held stereotypes about men and women, tend to get a lot of play when they emerge. The media always enjoy a juicy study showing how unpleasant high-powered women are—how troubled their relationships, how bossy and shrewish their calls to the home front, how henpecked and emasculated their husbands. There is a backlashy feel to some of the coverage of women earners, as if it satisfies a deep human need to believe that women when they succeed professionally are doomed to fail personally, and that men will never, ever flourish in the face of female achievement. Google “Daily Mail”—the reliably conservative British tabloid—and “female breadwinner” and you will get no shortage of reactionary doomsday coverage. Women will have less sex! They will yell at their husbands! Men will leave them! Heartbreak will ensue, as “a growing band of increasingly successful women climb up the career ladder and financial scale, leaving a trail of broken marriages and relationships in their wake when men resent losing breadwinner status.” The idea that women, by winning, are really losing, is popular but it is also—I would argue—simplistic and extremely suspect.
Because, in fact, social norms are changing and so are men’s reactions to women earners. Until very recently, sociologists thought women who earned more than their husbands did more housework, to reassert their femininity and conform to social expectations, and that their husbands did less, to reestablish control and masculinity. Now it appears—this just in—that is not true. It is not true now, and possibly never was. All measures confirm that men have been increasing their housework as women have increased their work time. And there are studies that suggest that women actually receive more praise than men do for high earnings. The evidence shows that many men are perfectly able to celebrate their wives’ successes and, like Danny Hawkins, give the women they love and admire a full, sympathetic hearing. And young men have different expectations than they did thirty years ago. Men want more time with their children, more flexibility, more of a life outside the office. And what is likely to win them that? A successful, hardworking wife.
While it’s clearly true that men in some cases are struggling to get their heads around the idea of being out-provided—and sometimes failing spectacularly, and retaliating dramatically, as you will read in some of the pages that follow—the truth is that many men are happy to share the reins of financial responsibility, or even hand them over. These men correctly perceive that life as a co-earner or secondary earner will enlarge their own pleasures, giving them more time for hobbies, leisure, and children, or for work they find fulfilling rather than lucrative. Increasingly, I would argue, men will want to marry a woman who makes more than they do. In some cases, men will want this because they realize it will make their own lives freer and better; in other cases, they’ll want it because it seems rational to assume women are favored in a new economy that runs on information, consumer acquisition, and service, rather than industry or hard labor. “When culture runs up against economic trends, usually economic trends win out,” says Nobel laureate Gary Becker. By this he means: even if men have been brought up to think they should be breadwinners, and are put off by women who might surpass them, pragmatic incentives will win out over competitiveness and psychological insecurities. Men—smart men—will gladly hitch their wagon to a female star.
The real impediment in the short term may be women themselves. Do women want to be breadwinners with the responsibility and overtime that entails? Can a high-powered woman love a laid-back guy who idles at a lower speed than she does? Some of the evidence suggests: no. Among many women, there remains a vestigial sense that a man needs to bring something to the table besides dinner, no matter how expertly cooked, and that a man who is not generating a salary has reneged on his central obligation. I talked to far more high-earning women who worried that their husbands felt emasculated than to men who actually did feel emasculated. Some women struggle with finding ways to appreciate other qualities, besides income, that men have to offer. In fact, women may be further behind emotionally than men. Many resist thinking of themselves as the main provider. “Getting boxed in as the higher earner—it sounds like a lot more work, and a lot less play,” one young Ph.D. student I interviewed reflected as she envisioned being the permanent breadwinner in her relationship. It’s a wrenching transition, in which the laws of sexual attraction are changing along with the dynamics of the household.
Looking at men’s reactions to women’s earnings, you could say that men have three options. Men can resist women’s rising economic power, even retaliate against it, a reaction vividly captured in much of the journalism and feminist literature of the 1980s and 1990s. Alternatively, men can quit, give up, stop trying: a reaction explored in much of today’s coverage about men’s anxieties in the face of an economic downturn that has hit them harder than women. But there is a third option—Door Number Three, you could call it. This option sees men rising to the challenge, developing more perfect unions with the women they are intimately connected to; and, inspired by women’s example, raising the level of their game. Door Number Three leads to men trying harder in the classroom, competing with women, but in a good way, self-improving, adapting, developing new skills. For women, there are also three options. Women can resent men and focus only on their shortcomings, real and perceived. Or women can hang on to the past, occupying their new role but cleaving to old ones, struggling to retain control over children and home tasks. Alternatively, women can move toward this new vision, expressing gratitude for the many ways men are adjusting, giving ground when they need to, and relaxing into a fuller acceptance of their changing economic role. I’d argue that the third option has been overlooked; that it’s occurring; and that it merits more attention than it has gotten.
Because, behind Door Number Three, the future of the female breadwinner—the breadwoman, you might call her—is bright. Women’s earning power and the vitality and success it signals will lead to a genuine breakthrough in the relationship between the sexes. It will give women the bargaining power they need to get more help from men at home, usher in a new age of fairness, complete the revolution, push us past the unhappy days of the so-called second shift, when so many men and women were mired in arguments over equity that always seemed to boil down to laundry and dishes. Women’s earnings will bring about a new liberation for women but also for men. It will bring about an epoch of fresh realizations and adjusted expectations. Increasingly, couples will even rethink the definition of fairness, and realize that “fair” can have a meaning other than perfect 50-50 equality in all tasks. They will realize that marriages sometimes do work best when the partners occupy complementary roles, doing slightly different things, but what’s new is that these roles don’t have to be complementary in traditional, gender-bound ways. In relationships, couples will perceive that the goal of absolute sameness is not always workable and not always desirable, either. Each partner doesn’t need to be interchangeable, doing exactly the same things, half-work, half-family, dividing the work according to a strict egalitarian notion. Sometimes it really is preferable—and necessary—for one spouse to be the high-powered partner and the other to provide behind-the-scenes support. What’s going to be different is that women increasingly will be the ones occupying the high-powered role, and they need to learn to be happy with partners who celebrate and help them.
In the coming decades, there are other developments men and women can look forward to. Men, I predict, will rapidly adjust to the new state of affairs. Pretty soon, we will see more and more men attracted to high-earning, dynamic, and successful women. For the first time, men will start thinking of marriage as a bet on the economic potential of a spouse, exactly as women have done for generations—from the drawing rooms of Jane Austen to the hot tubs of the Real Housewives era. A man will look at a woman and think: Wow. Look at her: she’s going places. And more and more, it will be men who make adjustments, such as relocation, to support a partner’s career.
Meanwhile, women will grow into their identity as breadwinners. Increasingly, they will accept the breadwoman role. Women will change the way they look at men and what traits they find desirable in a mate. They will place even greater value on qualities such as supportiveness (a glass of wine waiting at the end of the day, a chance to unburden), parenting skills, and domestic achievements, not to mention that great old masculine standby: protection. And women will no longer feel that their standing in the world derives from what their husband does or how much he makes. This will relieve a great deal of pressure—cultural, emotional, financial—on men.
Both sexes will be freer to make purely romantic choices—choices that have nothing to do with marriage as an economic partnership. This means more women will marry down; more men will marry up. More women will marry younger men; more men will marry older women. More women and men will marry across racial and ethnic groups. And instead of “matching” on education and earnings, couples will find common ground in an outside leisure pursuit that they can share on an equal footing.
The home front will become more and more masculinized. Men will view the home as the space they can make their own, an adaptation made easier by two decades of American households transforming their kitchens and outdoor grilling areas into performance arenas. “It’s just much more fun to be around home than it used to be,” is how one domesticated husband put it. “There’s just all kinds of stuff.”
Women will take to the skies. High-earning young women who remain determined to marry men who make as much or more than they do will turn to more enterprising measures than online dating. Women will use their earnings to travel far and wide, flying from big cities to other big cities, keeping the travel industry afloat and turning the country—the world—into one big marriage market, one giant globally connected dating pool. In countries such as Japan and South Korea, where high-achieving women are still intimidating to men, more subservient—that is to say, poorer—women will be brought from other Asian countries to meet the preferences of men who want to marry someone who will be economically dependent on them. Meanwhile, men in Western nations may opt for mail-order brides, or move and settle in less developed countries with a wife who will take care of them—and take their money.
Contrary to some reports, women will not feel a desperate need to hook up, sexually, as a way to find suitable mates who will commit to them. Some journalists and academics have suggested that so-called hookup culture is the result of high-achieving women rather indiscriminately having sex with the diminishing number of men who share their credentials; that women are offering sex with the hope of snagging a man who will agree to settle down. Not so. It’s true that a new generation of women will behave more like men sexually, by having lots of partners, but many of these women will be delaying commitment. Women will become more sexually assertive. They will use their economic resources to find men who are good at sex but also—equally important—good at washing dishes. Sexually, women will feel more free than ever to say no; to determine the kind of sex they are having and how often they want to have it. Oh, and if their lower-earning men criticize them for carrying a few extra pounds, they will happily ignore it.
And contrary to other anecdotal reports, men in the “marriageable” pool will not be looking to extend their promiscuous days. Instead, men will be the ones longing to settle down. Indeed, new studies suggest that men, far from being the commitmentphobes they are often made out to be, may have a greater desire than women for family life.
The pool of Americans who are married will continue to shrink. Rates of cohabitation will rise, as will the ranks of people living alone. Women will be able to afford to wait around and be choosy. But just because a woman might be living alone does not mean she will be lonely. Instead, women will savor the company of friends, although not necessarily in a sexual way. Women do this now, of course, but increasingly the couples at bars and concerts and shows will be women with women. Women will dominate the public square. The public arena will become more and more feminized. Look around you at a restaurant and notice how many of the tables are filled with groups of women—trios, quartets, tables of eight—clinking wineglasses and ordering the filet mignon. More important, women will be less likely to regard a single life as a failed life—and more likely to find pleasure and fulfillment in a life that does not include marriage. Even when in committed relationships, women will want to maintain space for themselves and time for their friends. They will consider clinginess in a boyfriend a major deal breaker.
And within couples, now that it’s permissible for men to be stay-at-home fathers and part-time workers, couples will argue over who in the partnership must assume the responsibility of primary earner, and who gets to have the freedom and flexibility that go with being the slow-track partner.
Some couples may struggle, sexually, until men find new ways to recover and assert their masculinity. But this may not be as difficult as people think. Men will craft a broader understanding of masculinity, one that includes domestication but also more time spent on manly pursuits: hunting, fishing, and extreme fitness. Meanwhile, women with lower-earning husbands will work hard to praise them for other kinds of accomplishments. Things that might have been considered “hobbies,” if women were doing them, will be granted a higher status when performed by stay-at-home husbands. Family blogs maintained by dads will be considered “book projects.”
Women living in cultures and belonging to religions that emphasize the importance of male provision—and female submission—will have to find a way to resolve this tension. Assessing their own prospects in the workplace, and finding them greater than their husbands’, women may have to break away from the flock, get permission from their pastors to work, or live in a state of uneasy conflict, in which the reality of their daily life is at odds with the teachings they hear on Sundays. Ministers and pastors will be called upon to supply dispensation for women to be breadwinners, and husbands will “allow” their wives to earn more than they do, thereby maintaining their God-given authority, in spirit if not in fact. These men will preserve their masculinity by designating themselves their wives’ handlers and protectors.
The more emotional and logistical support that breadwomen can enlist from their stay-at-home husbands, the more money these women will earn. The workplace, long so skeptical of female employees, will institute some long-delayed changes. More flexibility, yes—one can hope. At the same time, employers will regard supportive husbands the same way they used to look at stay-at-home wives: as crucial domestic backup, a welcome guarantee that female employees will be able to work with as much dedication as men traditionally have. The more backup that employers see women getting on the home front, the more willing bosses will be to invest in the careers of their female stars. Women’s earnings will rise. And rise. It will never stop, until …
Women marry down, and raise their husbands up.
And that, too, will happen.
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Meet the Author
Liza Mundy is the bestselling author of Michelle: A Biography and Everything Conceivable and is a staff writer at The Washington Post. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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