Magazine article Newsweek

She Works, He Doesn't: She's Got an Advanced Degree, a High-Paying Job and a Boss Who Loves Her. He Just Got a Pink Slip. or Maybe Her Career Has More Earning Potential. or Maybe He's the Nurturing One. the Number of American Families in Which the Sole Wage Earner Is the Woman Is Small, but Many Economists Think It's Growing

Magazine article Newsweek

She Works, He Doesn't: She's Got an Advanced Degree, a High-Paying Job and a Boss Who Loves Her. He Just Got a Pink Slip. or Maybe Her Career Has More Earning Potential. or Maybe He's the Nurturing One. the Number of American Families in Which the Sole Wage Earner Is the Woman Is Small, but Many Economists Think It's Growing

Article excerpt

Byline: Peg Tyre and Daniel McGinn

Since the beginning of time, anthropologists believe, women have been programmed to seek a mate who can provide for a family--whether that means dragging the mastodon back to the cave or making the payments on the Volvo. So when Laurie Earp walked down the aisle, she joined hands with a man most brides would consider a good catch: a lawyer. "By marrying a lawyer," she says, "I thought he'd be able to bring in money." Freed from the need to earn a big paycheck, Laurie imagined herself in a part-time job, one that allowed her to spend long afternoons with their children.

For a time the Earps realized that vision. Jonathan earned a six-figure salary as a lawyer at Napster, while Laurie worked leisurely hours as a fund-raising consultant. But last May Jonathan was laid off; he still can't find work. So, reluctantly, Laurie has become the breadwinner. On a recent evening their son, Dylan, 5, skipped through their home in Oakland, Calif., praising how well his stay-at-home dad cares for him. But Dylan is the only one pleased with the turnabout. "This is not the life I wanted," says Laurie, who's heading off to an after-dinner meeting with clients. Meanwhile, Jonathan spends his days doing housework and preparing badly cooked dinners. "I hate it all," he says.

Like several million American families, the Earps are experiencing the quiet, often painful transformation that takes place when Dad comes home with a severance package. The unemployment rate hit 6 percent last month, and while that's low by historical standards, some economists say it underestimates the difficulties facing laid-off workers--especially white-collar men who've been victimized by corporate downsizings. Despite Alan Greenspan's predictions of rosier times on the horizon, some experts talk of a growing problem of "underemployment" that goes beyond the nation's 8.8 million jobless. Their numbers include people forced to accept part-time work, all those newfound "consultants" who are playing computer solitaire but producing little income, and "discouraged workers" who've given up job hunting altogether.

The good news, at least for the 1.7 million unemployed men who are married, is that their wives are better equipped than any generation in history to pick up the financial slack. Women are currently earning more college degrees and M.B.A.s than men. In 1983, women made up 34 percent of high-paying "executive, administrative and managerial" occupations; in 2001 they were nearly half of that category. They've also weathered the recession better than men, because traditionally female industries like health care and education have suffered less than male-dominated businesses like manufacturing. Although the average woman's wage still trails a man's (78 cents to the dollar), enough women are breaking into better-paying professions that in 30.7 percent of married households with a working wife, the wife's earnings exceeded the husband's in 2001. Many of these women were born and bred for the office; they wouldn't want it any other way.

Within these homes, some of the husbands have voluntarily dialed back their careers (or quit work entirely) to care for kids and live off their wives' income. Some experts use a new phrase to describe high- income female providers: Alpha Earners. For some families, this shift works wonderfully; for others (especially those forced into it by layoffs), it creates tensions. Regardless, it's a trend we'd better get used to. Like runners passing the baton in a track event, many 21st-century couples will take turns being the primary breadwinner and the domestic god or goddess as their careers ebb and flow. Says marriage historian Stephanie Coontz: "These couples are doing, in a more extreme form, what most couples will have to do in the course of their working lives."

Most experts believe the number of families converting to the "Mr. Mom" lifestyle remains quite small. …

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