The future of the family in an age of female breadwinners


A new Pew report on “Breadwinner Moms” notes that 40 percent of families with children under 18 now have the mother as the primary or sole breadwinner in the family. While this rapid transformation — that figure was 11 percent in 1960 — is scaring some backward commentators, there are real problems created by the major demographic trend underyling the transition. These are problems that smarter, more progressive public policy can solve.

The higher number of female-funded families is split roughly 60-40 between an increase in single moms (now up to 25 percent of families with children) and an increase in families where the mother earns more than the father (now 15 percent of families with children). The latter families tend to be affluent and college-educated while the former families tend to be poor and non-college-educated.

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The report also notes that the proportion of married couples with children where the father is the sole breadwinner has declined sharply from 70 percent in 1960 to 31 percent today, while dual income families where both the mother and father work has become the norm (up from 25 to 59 percent). There has also been an increase from 2 to 7 percent in married couples with children where only the mother works.

The public has mixed feelings about these changes. While 64 percent see the rise of unmarried mothers as a big problem, 63 percent disagree that a marriage is better if the husband earns more than his wife. Similarly, two-thirds think more women working outside the home has made it easier to live comfortably, while three quarters say this change has made it harder to raise children.

Given these ambivalent feelings, it is perhaps no surprise that these changes and whether/how we should respond to these changes have become controversial political issues. But these feelings are really only the tip of the iceberg. If we want to understand why these issues have become not just controversial but extremely contentious, we have to dig a little deeper. That starts with understanding a very important phenomenon called “the second demographic transition.”

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The first demographic transition accompanied the rise and consolidation of the industrial economy. As living standards rose, public health improved and urbanization proceeded, mortality and fertility declined, marriage became both more common and earlier in the life-cycle and family life was dominated by a single family model (the “nuclear family”) encouraged by state and religious authorities. In the United States, the culmination of this transition was the society of the 1950’s, centered heavily around an idealized nuclear family, with high marriage rates, low divorce rates and a median age at first marriage of around 20 for women and 23 for men.

The second demographic transition has unfolded with the rise of the information economy and postindustrial society. Increasing affluence and education levels, shifting occupational structures, changing values, especially on the importance of self-expression, tolerance and equality, and the widespread availability of reliable contraception have broken down the norms underlying the ordered life course of the 1950’s. Fertility has further declined, marriage rates have decreased, divorce rates have increased and the median age at first marriage has shot up to 26 for women and 28 for men. The hold of traditional religion has been loosened and laws reflecting religious priorities have been eliminated or weakened.

Naomi Cahn and June Carbone show in their excellent book, Red Families v. Blue Families, show that this transition has not been neutral across society but rather has winners and losers — a class divide, if you will.

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Article prepared by Leon Dubois

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