There Is No Such Thing as the ‘Traditional Male Breadwinner’

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If we’re ever going to fix our problems accommodating both work and family in our lives, we have to stop thinking that the dilemmas we face today stem from the collapse of the traditional male-breadwinner family. There is no such thing as the traditional male-breadwinner family. It was a late-arriving, short-lived aberration in the history of the world, and it’s over. We need to move on.

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For thousands of years, any family that needed to work understood that everyone in that family needed to work. There was no such term as “male breadwinner.” Throughout the colonial America era, wives were called “yokemates” or “deputy husbands.” When men married, they didn’t do it because they had fallen helplessly in love. They did it because they needed to expand their labor force or their land holdings, or they needed to make a political or military or business alliance, or they needed a good infusion of cash, which was why they were often more interested in the dowry than the daughter. Male breadwinner was a contradiction in terms — there was no such thing. Males were the bosses of the family workforce, and women and children were the unpaid employees.

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It wasn’t until the 1920s that a bare majority of American children came to live in a family where the husband earned the income, the wife was not working beside him in a small business or on a farm or earning income herself, and the children were either at home or in school and not working in a factory or in the fields. That family form then grew less common during the Great Depression and World War II, but it reappeared in the 1950s thanks to an unusual economic and political situation in which real wages were rising steadily and a government flush with cash was paying veterans benefits to 44% of young men starting families. This was a period when your average 30-year-old man could buy a home on 15% to 18% of his own salary, not needing his wife’s. That era is gone — for good. And yet the U.S. formulated its work policies, school hours and social-support programs on the assumption that this kind of family would last forever, that there would always be someone at home to take care of the children and manage the household.

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Today in a sense we’ve gone back to the future. We’ve gone back to the two-earner family but forward to a world where men and women now earn separate incomes and have equal legal rights. Increasingly, they want equal access to the rewards and challenges of both paid work and family. Yet many policymakers and business leaders are still stuck in that blip in time when women were only marginal members of the workforce and men were only marginal members of the family. The only major change we’ve made since the 1950s is passing the Work Family Leave Act, which offers unpaid leave that lasts only 12 weeks and is available to only half the workers who need it. Our policies are so inadequate and so far behind the rest of the world that the best claim we can make is that we’re 181st in the world; 180 other countries have better work-family policies than we do.

We have to get rid of the embarrassing disconnect between our outdated policies and the realities of our family lives, where 70% of American children grow up in homes where all the adults work outside the home. We are now 13 years into the 21st century. Isn’t it time to stop acting like it’s still the 1950s?

This article was adapted from a talk Coontz gave as part of a work-life video series produced by the Families and Work Institute.