Are You in a Female-Breadwinner Couple?

There’s been a lot of talk in the last month or so about the male-female dynamic, especially when it comes to the genders and their relationship with money – both earning and investing.  Possibly driving the conversation?  A recently revealed Pew Poll which revealed a rather startling figure: 40% of households with children count mothers as the sole or primary earner.

This survey was accompanied by the following chart, showing the recent growth trend in females out-earning their male counterparts:

Female Breadwinner trends since 1960 (Pew)

Female Breadwinner trends since 1960 (Pew)

It’s definitely a new era in American sexual dynamics, wouldn’t you say?

What Sticks Out

Worrying, of course, is the primary driver of the trend – the growth in households with single mothers.  It is, of course, not a new phenomenon – even the 1960 results showed that 7.3% of households with children under 18 were headed by a sole female breadwinner.  However, more than a quarter of households in the recent release have fit the profile – a full 25.3% of households with children.

The flip side of the coin is the dual income household, with the larger share of the income coming from the mother’s side.  We’ve gone from an also-ran category claiming just 3.5% of the votes (similar in size to the “Other/Don’t Knows” we get in other surveys) to a significant 15% of all households with children.  This isn’t a fluke in the data, either – even though marriages are happening at a later age (Wikipedia lists 28.9 years for men and 26.9 for women from 2011 data in the US), fertility often lasts into the 40s, negating arguments about “child-bearing age”.  As for “Stay at Home Dads?” (who I’ve heard affectionately AND sarcastically referred to as Mr. Moms), our good friend Free by 50 found that in 2011 there were only around 176,000 Stay at Home Dads in America.

Parity in the Workplace?

As we’ve documented here, recent recessions (over the last 50 years or so) have impacted male employment levels much more than female levels.  Add to that the statistic that women recently passed men in Doctorate level degrees awarded, completing the clean sweep for degrees (Why do we still call an undergraduate degree a “Bachelor’s Degree”?), and the fact that single women out-earn single men (most significantly in cities).  All that adds up to an interesting conclusion: we’re moving to (or even beyond!) parity in male-female workforce dynamics.

Don’t believe me?  Well, I’m sure you’d agree that the majority of disparity in male-female earning used to come among married couples.  Post-Great Recession the total income has pulled close to even.  Women now contribute a full 47% of income to the finances of married households.  Combined with the statistics I cited above about the number of advanced degree holders, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the numbers reverse themselves in the next few years.

Recent Controversies and Female Ascendancy

It’s fair to call females ascendant, in aggregate – women earn way more degrees (and money) than in the past, and they contribute almost the same amount to household income.  However, what’s a good label for males in this story of female success?  Echoing the dismal employment picture for men vis-à-vis women we covered on Monday, is it fair to say there is a male “decline”?

One cause of the male decline in the workforce is surely the collapse of so-called male-dominated industries.  As stated by our friend Suba on Monday, certainly the generational decline of manufacturing ranks highly (as an industry with lower barriers to entry and a heavily male workforce) as does the Great Recession’s obliteration of the construction industry.  Consider that nowadays, only industries which require physical stature necessarily are male-dominated – testosterone certainly confers physical advantages – but knowledge based industries throw up no such barrier.  Outdated stereotypes of female intelligence are thankfully falling down as studies reveal that the average IQ for both sexes is very close.  All this translates to more women in previously male-dominated knowledge industries like engineering, banking and finance.  In finance?  Witness the reaction to Paul Tudor Jones’s comments about the effect of having children on women’s ability to invest.

More likely, Mr. Jones, the stereotypes which kept women out of the investing world only recently fell… and as it requires a long career to gain a reputation as a successful investor (for good cause – what is one good call worth?), next generation we’ll see some gender diversity on investing panels!  In fact, women hedge fund managers already generate more alpha than their male counterparts, according to a 2013 study by Rothstein Kass.

The Changing Face of the American Workforce

What will the next years bring?  If current trends hold, as we expect they will for at least a bit – the next few years might reveal a country with more females working than males.  Those females will probably make more than males.  There will probably be a greater number of stay-at-home-dads.  Unfortunately, there will probably also be a greater number of single parent households.

Interestingly, even though the stigma which worked against females in the workforce has now mainly been erased, there is still an intra-couple ennui when females outearn males.  Vague unease and an increased rate of divorce doesn’t seem to be slowing down the recent trends however – which makes me curious… how many of you readers have an opinion on this subject?  Are you in (or are you well acquainted with) a female-breadwinner household?  What do you think the workforce will look like in 10 years?


  1. says

    At the start of our marriage I out-earned Mr. PoP by a lot. But in 2012 (3 years later), his income surpassed mine for the first time. I just don’t see it as a big deal either way and in my own perfect world view, I would anticipate that breadwinners would be split M:F on a 30:29 ratio (or somewhat close to that), accounting for the average 1.9 births per female (30 year work life, allowing for a 6 month departure from work for each birth).

    • says

      Any interest in trying to juice that female birth number up to the 2.1 replacement rate?

      I like your math though – work is a societal imperative (nowadays, it’s the means we use to acquire food and resources). Giving birth is a biological imperative – there will definitely be times when one trumps the other!

        • says

          Haha, no pressure – especially from a semi-anonymous blog in your niche.

          You’d have to pick a side anyway, unless it has become possible for people to have 2.1 kids? (And 1.3 dogs and 2.5 cars?)

  2. says

    While I will never know for sure because my parents never talk about money, I suspect that my mom made a lot more than my dad did.

    At present I still out-earn the cats and the plants.

    • says

      My dog is very offended that I out-earn him. I’m jealous though because he chases far more squirrels than me!

  3. krantcents says

    When my wife and I married straight out of school, she made $25 per week more than me. Personally, I would have no problem of my wife out earning me.

  4. says

    It seems likely to me that female breadwinners will increase in the next 10 years. I don’t know why I would have a problem with being in a female breadwinner household.

    • says

      I know there’s an evolutionary biology argument to be made here, certainly tying in the rise of single parents… but it would be way too long for the comments section, heh.

      I, too, want to believe that I wouldn’t have an issue if my wife made more. But, like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones song, I’ve never faced it… but I know someone who has. It really does make me wonder what I’d feel. (That’s the impression that I get!)

  5. Jacob @ iHeartBudgets says

    My wife is at home, but I would still call her the breadwinner, because if she was paid a salary for the work she does, I’d be left in the dust!

    The trend isn’t surprising, and I don’t see an issue with women earning more than men. The problem I find with ANYONE pursuing higher income is at what sacrifice? When family goes on the backburner for Dad or Mom, I don’t support that.

    • CameronDaniels says

      Clearly there are extremes, but I don’t know if this covers the work vs family time tradeoff completely adequately. Many work extremely hard with the explicit intent on spending it on their family. Either by having weekends off or free, spending for education to enfranchise their children or to ensure a retirement for time spent later in life with grandchildren.

      If you are working 80 hours a week and are considering spending an extra 20 hours/week to avoid your family, I’d say you have a point. I just think most of the time it doesn’t come close to this extreme.

      • Jacob @ iHeartBudgets says

        I guess there are assumptions on both our parts. I tend to have a slightly pessimistic view on the motivations for people earning money, based on how I see American spending. Maybe their intent is great, but their spending patterns are flawed, and end up working 80 hours per week to fund their car payments and HD cable bill. If they truly wanted to care for their family, they’d cut the extraneous crap out of their life so they didn’t have to work so much to enjoy time with their fam.

      • says

        I’ve seen it both ways – I know the typical movie father who spends the first half of the movie working too hard before having an epiphany and switching careers for work-life balance has to have some analogue in real life. However, here in the Valley, you’ll have two working parents and an Au pair specifically so two high earners can provide every advantage to their children.

        Trade-offs for sure… higher quality education and different connections, or more time at home? Here, at least, more people have been choosing the “work hard” path.

        Anecdotes, data, and all that – I know.

  6. Catherine says

    I make more thsn my husband by a decent amount. We don’t care at all since we both earn wages which becomes ‘our’ money. There is zero him/mine in terms of finances.

    • says

      Straight into a joint checking account? Makes sense to me.

      We have our own accounts, but we do write checks back and forth on occasion (mostly due to home renovation). We haven’t discussed unifying the accounts yet… but, hey, they’re all on Mint – no one can hide anything, heh.