One of the most significant transformations over the past 50 years has been the growing proportion of women earning an income from paid employment after marriage and childbirth. In the 1950s, more than 70% of American families maintained a “traditional” employment structure comprising a male breadwinner and an economically inactive wife. By the 1990s, this arrangement gave way to the norm in couple families of both parents pursuing employment outside the home, often for long hours. Notwithstanding a general decline in the proportion of “nuclear” families, and increased household diversity associated with delayed family formation and single parenthood, the majority of children in Western countries grow up today with two working parents.
Dual-earner household proliferation stems from both cultural change and economic restructuring. Cultural influences include the women’s liberation movement, advances in contraception (contributing to smaller families and control over the timing and spacing of maternity leave), rising consumer expectations, and a common perception that paid work confers higher status and a stronger source of identity than homemaking and motherhood. Economic restructuring charts the decline of heavy industry and manufacturing and with it a permanent loss of skilled blue-collar jobs previously paying large numbers of men a family wage. New jobs that have opened up in the service sector generally call for skills that are socially constructed as “feminine,” paying low wages for nonstandard working hours. The combined effect of women’s increased employment opportunities, reduced male earnings, and widespread job instability is that most couples believe they need both partners to work if living standards are to be maintained. This is especially true where the cost of living (notably house prices relative to incomes) is rising.
The normalization of a dual-earner structure is remarkably consistent throughout the Western world. In a survey of Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and the United States, for instance, O’Connor and colleagues found 60% to 65% of women in couples with children in dual-earner structures. Yet this population of dual-earner households is not homogeneous. The dual-earner strategy has a far longer history in African-American than in White middle-class families, for example. Similarly, cross-national variation exists in the working hours, occupational status, and child care arrangements of dual-earning parents. Used too broadly, the term can obscure important differences between partners who both work full time and those who combine full-time (male) with part-time (female) employment. Moreover, it is usual in the literature to differentiate between couples working for an hourly wage and those where partners are equally committed to a rewarding career. The former are sometimes referred to as two-job households and the latter as dual-career households. Labor force survey data for the United States and United Kingdom indicate that only a minority (10% to 20%) of dual earner households represent the dual-career type most likely to feature gender role equality. A similar-sized minority represents two-job households with both parents working full time, but in less skilled, sometimes poorly paid jobs.
It is important not to assume that the dual-earner household is synonymous with a dual-career arrangement. Indeed, with the possible exception of the Nordic countries, notably Sweden, where state policy supports an egalitarian model of work life balance, it is questionable whether a truly symmetrical structure of shared earning and coparenting exists anywhere in practice. Rosemary Crompton positions the idealized dual-earner/dual-career arrangement at the extreme end of a continuum that begins with the traditional male breadwinner/female career model. She argues that in situations where dual-earner households constitute one and one-half income couples, as is typical in the United Kingdom, this represents a “modified breadwinner” arrangement perpetuating traditional gender roles. Further along the continuum are dual earner structures based on more equal earning arrangements, where care is provided for dependents either by the state (as in ex-state-socialist countries) or the market (as is typical in the United States and Canada) and parenting is still generally asymmetric. Notwithstanding emphasis on market provision, child care falls extensively to mothers and grandmothers in modified breadwinner arrangements.
Academic interest in the dual-earner household takes three forms. The first concerns the relative importance of the state, the market, and the family in stimulating proliferation of this household type. On the one hand, the reason why women in the United States tend to work full time after maternity leave might be explained by a welfare regime emphasizing self-reliance through private market provision. Scott and Dunscombe point out that health care insurance in the United States is costly and generally only available to full-time workers. On the other hand, the local transmission of gender roles and parenting standards might be said to exert a powerful cultural influence on a mother’s decision to reduce her hours or drop out of paid employment. U.K. mothers who take up full time employment can experience castigation for not “being there” for their children. Whether household earning behavior is influenced by fiscal, economic, or sociocultural factors, there exists distinct variation in child care practices by race, class, occupation, and region.
A second strand asks whether a shift away from gender role specialization to that of shared earning and multiple, often conflicting, roles fundamentally alters the balance of power in household decision making. Within this strand, particular attention has been paid to financial arrangements. Dual earning is shown to improve household income at all levels of earnings distribution. Data from the U.K. Equal Opportunities Commission indicate that 40% of women earn the same or more than their partner, and in the U.S., Levy and Michel observe that by the early 1990s one third of all the income of families with working wives came from their earnings. This leads to the question whether women who contribute an income from paid employment have greater bargaining power in key household decisions. Are they better able to resist being the “trailing spouse” in situations of migration for male spouse promotion? The research suggests that women who work full time in relatively high-status careers are better able to resist migration that is damaging to their employment, but the relationship between earnings and influence is not axiomatic. One alternative to the wholly moving household is dual-location living. This is used as a temporary or permanent strategy so that couples can live together some of the time while maintaining careers in different locations.
A third strand of research focuses on the effects that the rise of dual-earner households has on children, marital relations, and family life. While dual-earner households are “work rich,” they are also “time poor.” Families have gained the income women earn from paid employment but lost the time that they are available for unpaid caring and domestic services in the home. At the same time, very low-income families are unable to improve their situation by becoming dual earners because of the cost (in cash and support terms) of child care. Understandably, there is concern in dual-earner households that less time is given over to the care of children and elderly relatives. Some researchers argue that maternal employment is damaging to children’s emotional and behavioral development and consequently view the rise of dual-earner households as potentially harmful. Nevertheless, the popular image of “latch-key kids” and the erosion of family obligations can be exaggerated. Undermining notions of a growing care deficit are studies suggesting that parents spend more quality time with their children today, largely as a result of labor-saving technologies in the home.
Much is made of the need for dual-earner families to buy time through the purchase of goods and services. Yet census data show that private child care was purchased by just 55% of U.S. and 35% of British working families in 2000/2001. A significant proportion of dual-earner households manage child care informally, either by off-shifting spouse employment or relying on an army of unpaid “granny nannies.” The continuing importance of family care in dual earner families reflects not only the influence of parenting norms but also financial constraint. Affluent dual-earner households are in a position to purchase support services such as high-quality child care and domestic help. Yet their solutions to coordination problems rely on low-wage child care providers and cleaners for whom private child care is prohibitively expensive, even where they themselves form part of a dual earner of multi job household.
In fact, there is remarkably little difference in overall rates of market provisioning between single-earner and dual-earner families. This is because much social reproduction is performed as a “labor of love.” Women no longer choose between work or family but instead manage the conflicting responsibilities of work and family. Mothers are consequently hardest hit by the time squeeze, widely observed to experience role strain carrying a dual burden of paid employment and unpaid domestic and caring work. Symptoms of physical, emotional, and marital stress are widely reported. Consequently, much dual-earner household scholarship is about attaining greater balance to life through greater recognition of the value of women’s social reproduction work.
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