Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Convergence or Continuity? the Gender Gap in Household Labor after Retirement

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Convergence or Continuity? the Gender Gap in Household Labor after Retirement

Article excerpt

Two general findings have emerged from longitudinal research on couples' division of labor. First, household labor becomes increasingly gendered over the initial years of marriage, especially after parenthood (Sanchez & Thomson, 1997). Second, it remains deeply gendered throughout working life (Kühhirt, 2012).

This life course view, however, is incomplete. How does the division of household labor evolve in later life, in particular after retirement? Do wives continue to shoulder the lion's share of household labor, or do couples eventually reach more equitable arrangements after husbands have relinquished their breadwinner role?

These questions are relevant to contemporary aging societies, in which large cohorts of married couples are approaching retirement age and can expect to share further decades of life in good health. Understanding how their division ofhouseholdlaborchangesacrossretirementnot only adds to the study of gender inequality in later life but may also shed new light on associated outcomes such as spouses' perceptions of fairness, marital satisfaction, and subjective well-being. Moreover, extending the life course view on couples' division of household labor offers novel insight into broader themes such as gender roles (Gutmann, 1975) and time use (van den Bogaard, Henkens, & Kalmijn, 2014) in later life.

The few existing studies of postretirement change in household labor have used either cross-sectional or short-term longitudinal designs, precluding adequate assessments of change in gendered time patterns across transitions to retirement. In the present study we addressed this gap of research, drawing on extensive longitudinal data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study to trace change in older couples' division of household labor. We focused on the context of West Germany, in which a large majority of couples currently moving into retirement have followed the traditional male breadwinner-female homemaker model. We restricted the analysis to this type of retirement transitions in a couple context, selecting a sample of married male breadwinner couples in whom the husband retired from the workforce to study whether, and to what extent, this transition entailed shifts in the division of household labor. Our longitudinal data allowed us to assess temporary fluctuations as well as permanent changes not only in an aggregate measure of total household labor but also more detailed changes within three separate domains: (a) female-typed tasks, such as washing, cooking, and cleaning; (b) male-typed tasks, such as repairs and gardening; and (c) gender-neutral tasks, such as shopping and other errands.


Over the past two decades, studies have increasingly recognized the gendered division of labor as an intrinsically dynamic phenomenon characterized by changing resource constellations within couples and changing time demands for market and domestic work. Hence, longitudinal designs are required to understand how gendered patterns of time use evolve across the life course.

A number of investigations have provided insight into this process by tracing married couples over time (Grunow, Schulz, & Blossfeld, 2012; Sanchez & Thomson, 1997). Two findings stand out. First, the division of labor becomes increasingly gendered over the initial years of marriage. Second, the transition to parenthood accelerates this process.

In most of these studies the window of observation does not extend beyond the initial years of marriage. Recent research has addressed this deficit. Several studies have followed couples over longer periods, although their observation windows did not extend to retirement transitions (Artis & Pavalko, 2003; Bun Lam, Crouter, & McHale, 2012; Kühhirt, 2012). The evidence from these studies showed that couples' division of household labor becomes somewhat more equitable throughout midlife. Yet the observed shifts are modest-far from offsetting previous patterns. …

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