The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that the number of women who are primary breadwinners is rising, thanks in large part to the recession. The recently ended recession so badly whacked the manufacturing and construction sectors – providing predominantly male-oriented jobs – that one economist dubbed it a mancession, a term that’s taken root. But is this purely an economic change or one driven by sociology?
Why should it make a difference? Because if it’s economics-driven, then the figures should drop as the recovery takes hold and men return to the labor force. If it’s a sociologic change, then the trend will continue albeit at a lesser pace.
Frankly, I believe that it’s both. There’s been a discernible shift in the past fifteen years, the time that I’ve been home with the kids. A 2008 study found that fathers were spending more time on childcare and housework than in the past, regardless of whether they were at home full-time or working. I can also anecdotally note this simply in the manner in which I – and my choice as a stay-at-home father – have been accepted over the years. When I first stayed home, most mothers tended to avoid my children and I at the park when they realized that I was the one at home. I was isolated for some time until developing a network of friends – mothers and fathers – through our church and preschool. Until then. there were moments comical in retrospect; situations reminiscent of Animal House’s Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman journey to the primo Omega House during Rush Week and being steered through to join the likes of Mohammed, Jagdish, Sidney and Clayton. There’s still a very occasional kidding – do you macrame? – but people appear to be far more comfortable than they were before and the isolation is long gone.
But the economics reinforce the sociologic aspect and will probably continue to do so. Like the 2001 recession, I anticipate that this is going to be a jobless recovery especially in regards to the manufacturing and construction sectors. The US is still a manufacturing leader, but we’ve shipped millions of jobs overseas to much cheaper locales and these won’t be returning unless our own labor costs drop significantly or multinational corporations remember their civic loyalties. The former is a long-term likelihood and the latter is…well, don’t hold your breath. The construction sector is hampered by an inventory glut of residential and commercial properties as well as a debt-burdened consumer. Neither is set for a comeback in the foreseeable future and if things stall further, then the fathers and the families are in for a real sea-change.
Regardless of the cause, more men will continue to take a greater role in the family’s life, caring for children and managing the household. Some will do this because they were forced home and others simply because they see their mate working longer and harder. Both groups will come through with a greater understanding of what’s involved than what they might have had otherwise. And as the economic factors play out in the distant future, there will be what University of Michigan sociologist Pamela Smock refers to as a move in the "…direction of egalitarian roles."