How the recession is reshaping the American family
The downturn is forcing the man of the house to spend more time at home, altering roles everywhere from the laundry room to the child-care center.
(Page 3 of 4)
"We've never seen a gender imbalance like the one we're seeing now," says Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress. "What we don't know yet is how this will play out in families."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"The whole generation of kids who grew up in that associated their mothers' work with their fathers' depression," Coontz says. "Instead of being proud of their mothers' work, they were embarrassed."
Those children grew up to be the adults of the 1950s, and even less open to mothers working outside the home, she says. Those women who did have jobs were taught to avoid any sort of employment that might be interesting enough to distract from family duties. They were also cautioned against taking raises. "The most important thing you could do was to protect the man's ego," Coontz says. "That's really changed in the last 30 years."
Women's involvement in the workplace has increased steadily since the 1950s. According to a recent Family and Work Institute study, younger women today are just as likely as their male peers to want jobs with more responsibility. The 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce also found that 79 percent of married or partnered employees live in dual-earning households and that the women in these couples earn on average 44 percent of the household income. Overall, while women still only make 80 cents to every dollar earned by a man, more than a quarter of women in dual-earning couples make substantially more than their partners.
This shift in earning power has made it easier for some couples to adjust to their new, recession-era roles. Chuck Northrop had been the lead graphic designer in the marketing department at Colliers International, a commercial real estate firm in San Diego, when he was laid off at the end of August.
"It was unexpected," he says. "Even though I had a feeling things were bad because of what was happening in the real estate market, I was in shock."
His wife, Lynn, is a clinical psychologist at Grossmont Hospital, treating severely mentally ill adults. She had been working less than full time – four days a week until 3 p.m. – but still made a higher salary than Chuck. After his layoff, she was able to increase her work time to 4-1/2 days a week.
Because of her hours, Lynn had been the one to pick up their two children, 12-year-old Claire and 8-year-old Aiden, from school, drive them to afternoon activities, and make dinner. Now, Chuck is the one who helps with homework, cooks, does the laundry, and straightens up the family's sunny home in the city's South Park neighborhood.
"Some days I don't get home until 6 or 7 p.m., so obviously Chuck has already prepared dinner by the time I get there," says Lynn, her hand over his.
Both say that their adjustment has been relatively smooth; Lynn remembers how Chuck supported her when she went through a job loss a few years back, and Chuck says that he has actually been "thrilled" to spend more time with his kids. "I think right now we are closer than we've been in a long time," Lynn says, looking at Chuck, who nods in agreement. "Sure, he's going to need to get a job and unemployment is going to run out. But right now, this new arrangement is good for us."