Income inequality among married couples can lead to competitive, alarm-clock sabotaging grudges, or at least that's how such inequality would be portrayed in a comedy about a working couple in which one partner dramatically outearns the other. In reality, according to Susan Gregory Thomas' Wall Street Journal article about what happens when wives earn larger paychecks than their husbands, is that outearned men either smolder in frustration at their economic impotence, or, being naturally unambitious, they take to the role of stay-at-home-parent like a duckling takes to a bubble bath.
Earlier this week, a study on married couples in which women earned more than their male partners suggested that men who didn't have traditional preconceptions about gender roles (or, in the study's words, men who were "non-macho") could accept their wives' financial predominance as placidly as freshly milked cows. These "non-macho" men are characterized a little differently in Thomas' article — they're "beta" men, or, according to one interviewed husband, "not the ambitious type." "Macho" men (men clinging to traditional gender roles vis-à-vis June and Ward Cleaver) were often more frustrated with their wives earning more than them, a sentiment that's often exacerbated by the presence of children, which seems to more officially signify a traditional marriage role-reversal.
Thomas' article relies on some personal anecdotes — her husband, an antiques dealer, is more a victim of the stagnant economy than his own betaness — as well some pretty stark statistics, such as that 34 percent of women in the top 20 percent income bracket were breadwinners, while an overwhelming 70 percent in the bottom 20 percent were their family's primary source of cash money. Though she uses words like "alpha" and "beta" to describe couples financially powered by women (which might unfairly indicate that all men who earn less than their spouses are somehow lacking some essentially masculine ambition), she does offer some tentative explanations for why such income gaps between married couples are trending in the opposite direction than what they did when Don Draper came loping home from work with his fedora angled jauntily over his forehead. Thomas offers the following explanation for some shifts in gender attitudes that have paved the way for out-earned husbands to accept their supporting financial role in their family unit:
Perhaps because men of this generation were raised in the wake of the women's movement, a culture that introduced values of equality, many of them don't seem to have a problem with their wives earning more than they do.
Those men who don't seem to have "a problem" being out-earned by their wives, though, usually have a steady gig of their own that would allow them, in a pinch, support their families. In a tough economy, supporting a family seems to become an "all hands on deck" situation, that is, couples do what they have to do to get by. Though a man may be more susceptible to the other side of the gender inequality sword if he maintains a post-war idea of his role as castle king, we're starting to reach a point when both men and women can feel equal amounts of self-loathing for being unemployed or meagerly employed.
When Thomas mentions the effects of the women's movement on the male psyche, she might also venture that years of marked gender inequality are finally starting to benefit women, who have had and largely still have to hustle twice as fast just to prove to male-dominated hierarchies that they deserve to be compensated, promoted, and venerated the same way as their ambitious male colleagues and predecessors. That, however, may be exaggerating gender differences in the opposite direction — for Thomas, what seems most important is that spouses feel they have an equally important stake in the financial well-being of a family. Men are fine with taking a supplementary role, it seems, so long as that role isn't loafing aimlessly around the house with a vague ambition to make toast...later.
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