- Male joblessness emerged as an obstacle to men’s satisfaction across all nine European countries they studied. Tweet This
- Women with more egalitarian gender role attitudes were less bothered by being female breadwinners, but men with more egalitarian gender role attitudes still suffered from being unemployed. Tweet This
- Per a new study: “men and women are less satisfied with their lives under the female-breadwinner arrangement versus the dual-earner and male-breadwinner alternatives.” Tweet This
Women are the main or sole breadwinner in an increasing minority of heterosexual couples. Does this matter to people’s life satisfaction? Helen Kowalewska and Agnese Vitali contend in their recent research that women seem to have adjusted to this shift more so than men.
With the focus on couples’ breadwinning configurations, two findings about marriage and childbearing were almost buried in the tables of Kowalewska and Vitali’s study. First, they show that both men and women were more satisfied when they had more children (even children under two years of age—those years when sleep disruption almost always impacts well-being). Specifically, satisfaction kept increasing from zero to one to two to three or more children for both men and women.1 Because this was not their focal result, they did not probe to see whether it varied with gender ideology, or across countries, or within countries across breadwinning configurations. Without such additional analysis, we cannot know how consistent the contribution of children to satisfaction is, but we do know that, overall, there is higher satisfaction among those with more children.
Similarly, both men and women were more satisfied in marriage than in cohabitation. The authors did not compare the marital satisfaction premium across countries or breadwinning configurations, but they did show overall higher satisfaction among married compared to cohabiting couples. The marital satisfaction premium was almost twice as high among women than men, consistent with women being less satisfied in cohabitation than men. I would be surprised if there were a context in which men’s and women’s satisfaction were equally dependent upon marital status. There is work showing that context shapes the size of the gender gap in the marital satisfaction premium, but women gaining more satisfaction than men from marriage seems to be universal.
As I noted above, the study did not probe the effects of context with respect to the very basic finding that both spouses and children are associated with greater life satisfaction. I may have missed this omission had they not done such a superb job nuancing their overall conclusion that “men and women are less satisfied with their lives under the female-breadwinner arrangement versus the dual-earner and male-breadwinner alternatives.” They contend that variation across countries in the relationship between how couples divvy up work and their satisfaction can tell us a lot about how context shapes the determinants of satisfaction, as some labor configurations work better in gender-traditional societies, while some work better in more progressive ones.
Nonetheless, male joblessness emerged as an obstacle to men’s satisfaction across all nine European countries they studied. Kowalewska and Vitali situate this finding in an existing literature that emphasizes the importance of going out of the home to perform physical paid labor for male identity and how any job is usually better than no job for male well-being. It is also consistent with Harvard sociologist Sasha Killewald’s work showing that couples used to be more likely to divorce if the wife outearned the husband, but they have remained more likely to divorce if the husband doesn’t work full time. In other words, society seems to have departed from the norm that men need to be the family’s breadwinner, but it has not given up on the importance of men working in general. Low male earnings don’t threaten satisfaction the way male joblessness does. Even though satisfaction took a greater hit in more gender-conservative countries like Germany, it was fairly universal across Europe. They concluded:
even in countries where women’s employment is more widespread and cultural and institutional support for the male-breadwinner model is weaker, unemployed men with breadwinner wives are not immune from the social stigma and psychological difficulties associated with their gender non-conformity.
Their work goes beyond previous research on gender and earnings differentials by considering joblessness differently from either working less or earning less than the other partner. They show that joblessness is different, and its impact on satisfaction differs by gender. What the researchers called a female breadwinner well-being ‘penalty’ is the hit in life satisfaction present among both partners in a couple in which the woman is employed and the man is not. They find that part of the reason there isn’t a male breadwinner well-being penalty is that more jobless men in couples are seeking employment than jobless women in couples. Unsuccessfully seeking a job seems like it would be more dissatisfying than settling into homemaking in any almost any context. I say “almost” because there is a long-standing strand in the research literature that suggests men find homemaking demeaning because of its association with femininity. Kowalewska and Vitali do not directly assail this notion in their work, but the indirect assault is powerful: they find a modest well-being penalty among men who worked part-time when their female partner worked full-time, but a large one if he had no paid job. Again, male joblessness mattered more than relative hours or relative wages.
Women’s life satisfaction also takes a hit when they are unemployed. But among women, unemployment for both her and her partner is equally problematic. Among men, however, having a partner without a job doesn’t drive down well-being the way that their own joblessness does. Or, as the authors put it “jobless men report higher well-being when their female partner also has no job, whereas jobless women report lower well-being when the male partner is out of paid work rather than employed.” Her satisfaction seems to be more influenced by total income, and his by whether he is contributing.
The authors also pay careful attention to gender differences when they tested whether gender-role attitudes and partners’ relative incomes helped explain the different satisfaction levels associated with various earnings configurations. Their analysis reveals that women with more egalitarian gender role attitudes were less bothered by being female breadwinners, but men with more egalitarian gender role attitudes still suffered from being unemployed. This means the authors could explain away the female breadwinner well-being penalty among women by controlling for personal characteristics, but it was still present among men even after these controls, i.e., more universal.
It remains to be seen whether men “catch up” to women in being satisfied with female breadwinner arrangements or remain dependent on work for satisfaction.
Laurie DeRose is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, and Director of Research for the World Family Map Project.
1. The effect of very large families on satisfaction could not be estimated in their European data where couples with four or more children were rare.