Saturday, June 09, 2012

Liza Mundy 1: The Coming "Breadwomen"

Liza Mundy, in The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family, notes the rising trend of wives outearning their husbands. She foresees a day soon when a majority of wives will be the main earners in their families - what she calls "breadwomen."

Her core facts are these:

  • 37.7% of wives with any earnings at all make more than their husbands (2009, Bureau of Labor Statistics).
  • Women now hold 51% of managerial and professional jobs.
  • Women are better represented in 9 of the 10 job categories most likely to grow in the next decade. 

Mundy does outrun her data a bit.  The recent rise from 20-something percent of wives outearning their husbands to 30-something percent may be a temporary effect of the "mancession" of 2008 - 09, in which men disproportionately lost their jobs.  And "nearly 40%" is not the same as "the new majority," as her subtitle claims.

Moreover, women who make only a little more than their husbands are not quite what we usually mean by "breadwinners" (and of the course same is true with the sexes reversed). 

Mundy's best observation is that women having been doing better than men in school for a generation, which comes just at the time when our economy is increasingly knowledge-based.  This should give the average woman a growing advantage in both actual knowledge and in credentials over the average man.

I think the main phenomenon that Mundy's facts reveal is that as wives match or better their husbands' educational credentials and career aspirations, their earnings are more equal. Usually he earns a bit more, sometimes she does. This means that in many couples, neither is really the breadwinner, but together they support their family in roughly equal measure.


Diane M said...

I think Mundy is way overstating her case.

1. She only looks at wives who earn money. There is a significant chunk of women who earn nothing at all while caring for their children. So the percentage of wives who earn more than their husbands is even less than the 20-30% we're talking about, pre- and post-Recession.

2. Women often do this thing where they work more before kids than later on. So some of the women currently earning as much or more than their husbands, may end up earning less. And women with no kids are very different from women with kids.

3. Even if you accept the idea that 30% of wives outearn their husbands, we're looking at 70% of wives who earn less than their husbands. Not 51%, not 60%, 70%!! in a recession where mostly men lost jobs!!!

In terms of social policy for women, we need to look at ways to make sure women are okay even though wives will usually earn less than their husbands.

And I think the percentage of wives who will earn less than their husbands is probably closer to 80% than 70%.

Diane M said...

Ouch. I stand corrected. With her numbers it is more like 63% of wives with jobs earning less than their husbands.

But I think that number is way off as I said.

gruntled said...

I think your first point is especially well-taken. She is looking at wives with any earnings at all - not at all wives.

I think we will never see a time when wives are the primary breadwinners in married families. My educated guess is that 20% is the maximum that figure would ever reach, and at most half that if we looked at married mothers.