A new study suggests that young men are weathering the gender revolution just fine. Relying on data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, sociologists at the University Connecticut have found that when women take on greater financial responsibility in their marriages, both wives and husbands tend to experience a boost in well-being. Conversely, when men are the primary breadwinners for their families, their health and happiness tends to decline.
The male-breadwinner, female-homemaker model has long been thought of as an advantage for men. Working outside the home gives men financial power in the relationship, skills to rely on should they ever be widowed or divorced, and an ability to wield influence on public life and shape public discourse. But as new research demonstrates, such opportunities are bound up with responsibilities, ones that translate into a burden for many men.
“While a host of research demonstrates the ways in which men, as a class, are advantaged by gendered expectations in marriage, the present study contributes to a growing body of literature that emphasizes the ways in which the performance of masculinity is harmful to men,” the study’s authors write. “Further, we find that decoupling breadwinning from masculinity is associated with concrete benefits for both men and women.”
For the study, Christin Munsch, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, and graduate students Matthew Rogers and Jessica Yorks analyzed data collected from 1996 through 2011, during which 3,100 married adults, ages 18 to 32, from around the country were asked questions about their well-being. Participants were asked to report on which emotional states they experienced in the previous month, and how often they felt that way. They were also asked about their physical health.
The team compared this data with couples’ earnings, both household and individual, and discovered a pattern of decreased well-being for men the more they supported their families, and an increased well-being for women the more they supported theirs. They controlled for things like total income, education, age, hours worked, and whether or not the couples have children.
Munsch and her team explain this gap as the result of cultural expectations, both old and new. Men in breadwinning roles tend to be there because of a sense of obligation, and feel under pressure to maintain this status. Women, on the other hand, are relatively new to the whole breadwinning thing, and therefore continue to see it as an opportunity or choice. “Breadwinning women may feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. After all, they have accomplished something rare for their gender. Should they fail to maintain this status, however, they have less to lose,” they write.
It’s likely that previous generations of men would not have experienced the same well-being boost from being outearned by their wives, when such arrangements were uncommon. But as the number of U.S. households with men as the primary breadwinner decreases, so has the social stigma of not organizing one’s family life according to traditional patterns. According to Pew, in 1960, only 3.5 percent of married women in households with children under 18 were the primary provider; today that figure is 15 percent. (There’s been a far more significant rise of breadwinner moms among unmarried women.) The share of households where both parents work full time went from 31 percent in 1970 to 46 percent in 2015. And this shift in our workplaces has been matched by a shift in our homes. Study after study show that today’s fathers want to play an active role in their children’s lives, and are doing more childrearing and domestic work than their fathers did.
There’s a cloud around all this silver lining, however. The study also found that “at virtually every relative income score, women’s anxiety is higher than men’s anxiety, yet breadwinning men and breadwinning women experience virtually identical levels of anxiety.” The researchers interpret this as to mean that while men and women may feel similar stress levels as breadwinners, the experience of being economically dependent is very different for a man or a woman. A husband may feel liberated when supported by his spouse, whereas a wife who’s fully dependent on her spouse may feel a “strange stirring” familiar to generations of relatively well-off women who came before her. Another possible scenario? She’s earning 40 percent of the income but doing 80 percent of the childrearing and domestic work and totally freaking out.
Still, the study offers hope that the more gender and marital responsibility become decoupled, and the more spouses can feel free to make decisions based on what they want to do rather than what they feel they should do, the better all husbands and wives will feel. A high incidence of feelings of security and ease among married women who don’t work or who work part-time may not be common yet, but these new findings suggest that there’s reason enough to believe that one day it will.