Are Wives Making More Than Their Husbands?

What percentage of American wives outearn their husbands? The number just might astonish you

If you've been hanging around the United States over the past 20 years or so, you've bumped up against the notion, in the media and maybe in real life, that wives are increasingly earning more than their husbands-and what a fiasco it is! Men feel emasculated and resent their wives' incessant harangues about helping more around the house; women seethe as they continue to take on more than their fair share of the domestic duties and find themselves losing sexual desire for the unambitious lummoxes in their midst. Certainly you can think of a few couples in which this is not the case, in which he and she seem to have reached some graceful accommodation or are even, by all appearances, thriving: The guy is happily pushing the kids on the swings, while the gal is digging her high-powered job (and/or paycheck). But regardless of all the cultural noise, the overall proportion of wives whose salaries eclipse their husband's is, while not insignificant, nothing like the norm-right?

Wrong. Reading Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy's book, The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family, out this March, was a genuine shock. Based on 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics figures hot off the press (a government economist slipped Mundy the stats before they were published, in fact), "almost 40 percent of U.S. working wives now out-earn their husbands." While that's not the majority-grandiose subtitles definitely are the norm-it's darn close to it. (For the record, my guess was 25 percent, the figure in the early '90s.)

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Reasons for the Shift

Luckily for my ego, Mundy tells me in an interview that she too was surprised at the 40 percent, and, better yet, she says, "Most of the expert readers I've given the manuscript to don't believe it." The lofty number of female breadwinners, or more accurately, female primary breadwinners, isn't just a product of our devastating recession. As has been well publicized, largely male employment sectors such as manufacturing did contract the most during the recent economic downturn, accelerating the trend. But since way back in 1987, the slice of wives taking home more than their husbands has risen steadily, by a percentage point or so every year.

That's principally because so many more women than men are getting undergraduate and postgrad degrees-by 2050, there will be 140 college-educated women in the U.S. for every 100 similar men-and because the economy is bifurcating between low-skill, low-wage jobs and high-skill, higher paying ones (that require a bachelor's or more), with the middle emptying out.

Indeed, another title of Mundy's book could've been The Big Flip. It's the phrase she uses to denote the time not so far away-2025 is her hunch, based on her impressive research, which, in addition to a data dump, includes interviews with scores of ordinary people living the new reality-when more than half of the earners-in-chief in American households will be women. (Another factoid pointing toward the imminence of the flip: Nine out of the 10 U.S. job categories expected to grow most in the next decade-nursing, accounting, postsecondary teaching-are female dominated.)

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Single Women Are Also Outearning Men

Mundy isn't the first to notice that women are outpacing men in educational attainment and, in some instances, earnings. One of the big news reports of 2010 was that, in most American cities, single, childless women ages 22 to 30 are making more than their male peers, based on census data. And a much-talked-about cover story in November's Atlantic magazine by Kate Bolick maintained that women are increasingly preferring to remain unmarried rather than settle for men who aren't their intellectual and professional equals.

What's fresh-and persuasive to an extent-about Mundy's account is that she argues that the role-reversal ultimately will have both sexes singing hosannas. Women will have "the bargaining power they need to usher in a new age of fairness, complete the revolution, [and] push us past the unhappy days of the so-called second shift, when so many men and women were mired in arguments over equity that always seemed to boil down to laundry and dishes." Men will be liberated, as well. "They'll craft a broader definition of masculinity, one that includes domestication but also more time spent on manly pursuits: hunting, fishing, and extreme fitness." Which will be just fine for women because they'll come to "accept the breadwoman role," Mundy predicts, and choose spouses who exhibit "supportiveness (a glass of wine waiting at the end of the day, a chance to unburden), parenting skills, and domestic achievements."

How the Men Are Dealing

Both sexes are on their way to fitting comfortably into the new roles, Mundy says. When male college students are asked what they look for in a partner, a much larger swath cites earning power than did 50 years ago. More evidence: A 2008 Families and Work Institute study showed that the segment of men younger than 29 who want more responsibility at work has dropped in the last 16 years by 12 points, to 68 percent, while the share of women who say the same has risen, bringing them in line with each other. In the same report, while 74 percent of men told surveyors in 1977 that men should bring home the bacon and women raise the kids, only 40 percent say so today. And so on.

While sanguine about where we're headed overall, Mundy believes that her sex is actually lagging a bit behind the other in adjusting on the personal front. She calls it a "challenge" for young women to rewrite their mating scripts in an era where men are less educated-and the already-married set is also having its issues. "Sometimes, if women have a husband who is lower key and happy at home, they feel like they haven't landed the marriage partner they were supposed to land," she says. Mundy writes that she was "astonished at how many female breadwinners worried that their husbands felt emasculated by having to ask them for money.

"Why should your husband have to ask you for money?" she goes on to scold her fellow women. "Your earnings should go in a common account…Repeat after me: You are a provider. So act like one."

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If you're thinking, I know what's sticking in women's craw: The new way demands that they betray their hard-wired instinct to stay close to hearth and home; men are the ones designed to go out and slay beasts. While this was a main tenet of evolutionary biology when it blasted into the public consciousness in the early 1990s-and has practically become the national religion since then-the opinions in the field have changed. "A new theory," Mundy writes, is that the foraging of "Pleistocene Mom" made her "an energetic and competent provider." Which isn't to say that the set-up of the last few centuries hasn't become deeply rooted, even if more the result of nurture than nature. One or two of the female "hunters" in Mundy's sample told her they'd stopped grooving on their domesticated gatherers. "Women do want a man they can admire," she says. The key for her is for men to not just give up and opt out. Nobody gets hot for a stay-at-home schlub.

What Happens Next

Implicit in Mundy's peaceful vision for the future is that when men and women choose to cast their lots together (like many, she believes the marriage rate will continue to decline), they'll take complementary roles: the average wife as the primary wage earner, the average husband, while probably chipping in financially, assuming major responsibility for the household. Probably a half dozen times in the book she invokes the cheerful man who greets his frazzled woman at the end of the day with a much-appreciated glass of wine.

Sound familiar? Think Mad Men, Betty Draper pouring a scotch for Don upon his return from conquering the wilds of Manhattan's ad business, circa early 1960s. Except, wait a minute, Don treats Betty like a piece of (midcentury modern) furniture, and Betty is suffering from a serious case of "the problem that has no name"-Betty Friedan's coinage for what happened to women confined to the separate sphere of the home, their talents beyond the domestic arts left to wither. Will 2050 see the publication of The Male Mystique, a call to arms for unfulfilled househusbands?

Unlikely, Mundy tells me, because the so-called breadwomen she interviewed were "reluctant to really hold it over their partners' heads in the way that would be a flip of patriarchal behavior, to go home and just feel like they could do nothing." (She hastens to add that she's not trying to "demonize" men of the previous era by comparison.) "The women were really appreciative of husbands who were attentive to their welfare. They didn't take it for granted." And many of her male subjects, meanwhile, were acutely aware that it's no picnic to toil away at a job 60 hours a week. (Mundy floats the rather fascinating hypothesis that women these days may have it easier at work than men, because bosses tend to cut working mothers slack but not fathers.) So does this just mean that The Male Mystique will have to wait until "memories of the old order," in Mundy's words, have vanished, until couples' "imaginative empathy" for the other shrivels?

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Possibly, but though Mundy's rhetoric may seem thin at times, she's right to observe that twenty-first (and twenty-second) century arrangements probably won't exactly map the past, just switch Dick and Jane. Gender roles-and economic exigencies-have changed too starkly in the past 50 years. While women might take the earnings lead in families, dual-earner couples are, and will surely remain, the rule, as will the tendency of spouses to pass the primary breadwinner title back and forth, obliterating the whole idea of separate spheres. Gay couples provide a model of a division of labor "where people play to their strengths, not gender," Mundy says. Forgive all the TV references, but Modern Family's marvelous Mitchell and Cam come to mind-from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

Speaking of Marx, my Russian Studies scholar work-husband, Ben Dickinson-who also happens to be ELLE's books editor-is always saying that it's American capitalist culture that has it wrong, not men and women. None of us should have to work punishing hours to pay the bills, he tells me, or be forced to treat our place of employment like a church to which total devotion is owed.

Mundy agrees that scene is lousy for both sexes, but she's fed up with the "relentless parade of negativity" whenever the topic turns to women earning more than men. "I mean, how could it not be good for women to have more financial resources and to be more empowered?" she says. "I mean, how could that be a bad thing?"

Sorry, honey, you know I value your input, but I gotta go with the girl on this one.


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