The New Breadwinners
An Essay From "The Shriver Report: A Women's Nation Changes Everything"
Women have made great strides and are now more likely to be economically responsible for themselves and their families than ever before. In fact, for the first time in U.S. history, women are half of all U.S. workers and mothers are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American families. Heather Boushey, Center for American Progress senior economist, explores how American lives have changed with women as the new breadwinners. Boushey says that equality in the workplace has not yet been achieved, even as families need women's equality now more than ever. This essay was published by the Center for American Progress as part of a chapter in The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Changes Everything.
For a brief moment in American history, women during World War II accounted for more than one-third of the U.S. workforce as men streamed into the armed forces to defeat our fascist enemies. This phenomenal transformation of the U.S. economy was brief but its influence was enduring. So many Americans can share "Rosie the Riveter" stories akin to President Obama's memories of tales about his grandmother working in an arms manufacturing plant while his grandfather served in Europe with General George Patton.
Today, the movement of women into the labor force is not just enduring but certifiably revolutionary-perhaps the greatest social transformation of our time. Women are more likely to work outside the home and their earnings are more important to family well-being than ever before in our nation's history. This transformation changes everything. At the most profound level, it changes the rules of what it means to be a woman-and what it means to be a man. Women are now increasingly sharing the role of breadwinner, as well as the role of caregiver, with the men in their lives. Even so, we have yet to come to terms with what it means to live in a nation where both men and women typically work outside the home and what we need to do to make this new reality workable for families who have child care and elder care responsibilities through most of their working lives.
Indeed, the transformation in how women spend their days affects nearly every aspect of our daily lives. As women move into the labor force, their earnings are increasingly important to families and women more and more become the major breadwinner-even though women continue to be paid 23 cents less than men for every dollar earned in our economy. Nearly 4 in 10 mothers (39.3 percent) are primary breadwinners, bringing home the majority of the family's earnings, and nearly two-thirds (62.8 percent) are breadwinners or co-breadwinners, bringing home at least a quarter of the family's earnings. What's more, women are now much more likely to head families on their own.
These gains are by no means an unqualified victory for women in the workforce and in society, or for their families. Most women today are providing for their families by working outside the home-and still earning less than men-while providing more than their fair share of caregiving responsibilities inside the home, an increasingly impossible task. At home, families cope with this day-to-day time squeeze in a variety of unsatisfactory ways. In most families today, there's no one who stays at home all day and so there's no one with the time to prepare dinner, be home when the kids get back from school, or deal with the little things of everyday life, such as accepting a UPS package or getting the refrigerator repaired. Instead of having Mom at home keeping her eye on the children after school, families face the challenge of watching over their latchkey kids from afar and worry about what their teenagers are doing after school.
Yet the flip side is this: The presence of women is now commonplace in all kinds of workplaces and many are in positions of authority. Millions of workers now have a female boss and the more collaborative management styles that many women bring to the workplace are improving the bottom line. Increasingly, businesses are recognizing that most of their labor force has some kind of family care responsibility, and therefore are creating flexible workplace policies to deal with this reality. Many of the fastest-growing jobs replace the work women used to do for free in the home. The demand for home health aides, child care workers, and food service workers, for instance, has increased sharply.
Social patterns also are changing, and rapidly so. With women now half of all workers on U.S. payrolls, there is no longer a standard timeline for marriage and raising a family-if women even choose to marry or have children. The assisted reproductive technologies industry has blossomed as women-especially professional women-invest in their careers and delay motherhood into their 30s and 40s. And the share of women who are unmarried has skyrocketed: 40 percent of women over age 25 are now unmarried and a record 40 percent of children born in 2007 had an unmarried mother.3 While divorce rates have fallen, many women delay and some never even enter marriage.
This transformation also boasts profound implications for communities around the nation. In schools and religious and community organizations, women are now less available to volunteer during the work week and have less time to devote to leading community organizations. The transformation affects our health care system, too, since health care providers have to cope with the fact that there is not likely to be someone to provide free, at-home care for a recovering patient.
And it affects our quality of life. Many retail stores, restaurants, and consumer support lines are now open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which meets the needs of families with 9-to-5 work hours. But this has meant that millions of other families-disproportionately immigrants and lower-income families-have workers employed during nonstandard hours, affecting their marriages and their ability to access child care and other supports not generally available at nonstandard times.
Quite simply, as women go to work, everything changes. Yet, we, as a nation, have not yet digested what this all means and what changes are still to be made. But change we must, especially as the current recession amplifies and accelerates these trends throughout our economy and society. The Great Recession led to massive job losses, especially within male-dominated industries. Since the recession began in December 2007, men have accounted for three out of every four jobs lost (73.6 percent) and now 2 million wives are supporting their families while their unemployed husbands seek work.
Women now, for the first time, make up half (49.9 percent as of July 2009) of all workers on U.S. payrolls. This is a dramatic change from just over a generation ago: In 1969, women made up only a third of the workforce (35.3 percent).
Many American women have always worked, of course, but as more women joined the ranks of the employed and laws prohibiting outright discrimination came into effect, a wider array of opportunities opened up to women. By 2008, a working mother is no longer revolutionary and is in fact now common: Only one in five families with children (20.7 percent) are the traditional male breadwinner, female homemaker, compared to 44.7 percent in 1975. That year, 4 in 10 mothers with a child under age 6 (39.6 percent) worked outside the home, but by 2008, that share had risen to two-thirds (64.3 percent).
To understand what it means for women to become breadwinners, this chapter focuses on who's gone to work, where women are working, why they are working, and what this means for the economic well-being of women and their families. While women have made great strides and are now more likely to be economically responsible for themselves and their families, there is still a long way to go. Equity in the workplace has not yet been achieved, even as families need women's equality now more than ever.