People@Work: Recession Swells the Ranks of Breadwinner Wives

woman bread winner
woman bread winner

One of the quirks of the Great Recession was its inordinate impact on men. Male-dominated industries, such as construction and manufacturing, were among the hardest hit in the downturn, resulting in more men being laid off than women.

For married couples of opposite genders that has resulted in an increasing number of wives becoming the primary breadwinner or returning to the labor market. Research, published recently in the journal, Family Relations, finds that during times of economic distress, wives are more likely to enter the labor force when their husbands stopped working.

"With many of the recent layoffs coming from male-dominated fields, families are relying on wives as breadwinners to a larger extent than during a recent period of relative prosperity," say lead researchers Marybeth Mattingly and Kristin Smith of the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

The research suggests that the recent recession accelerated employment trends that have been emerging for several decades and, in turn, highlights changing gender roles in the family, equity in the workplace and work-and-family balance.

It's Fine With Me, Honey

The changing role of women as breadwinners is one Wendy Kaufman has watched emerge and dealt with firsthand as chief executive of Balancing Life's Issues, an Ossining, N.Y.-based provider of seminars that help workers juggle competing demands of work and family life.

A growing number of her clients are men, Kaufman says, noting that during one recent seminar, the men attendees outnumbered women, who traditionally have accounted for the bulk of her clients.

Of the couples with whom Kaufman has worked, most of the husbands don't mind -- in fact, like -- that their wives are now the breadwinners. "They have no problem with it," she says, adding that it's contrary to contemporary societal assumptions. "We thought it would be a stab to the [male] ego," she says.

'It Really Does Mean Redistributing Everything'

In her seminars, Kaufman and her clients spend a lot of time talking about the redistribution of labor at home, she says. Many husbands are unaware of all the effort that goes into making a household run, and wives often do a poor job of delegating the workload.

"They really do let it pile up, to where it becomes like a pressure cooker," she says. Whether the task is caring for a sick child, shopping for food, doing laundry, cooking or cleaning, "it really does mean redistributing everything."

Men whose wives have become breadwinners can do much to help relieve the stress that goes along with swapping roles by simply expressing gratitude for their wives stepping into the breech, Kaufman says.

In addition to making working wives breadwinners or causing more women to reenter the workforce, the Great Recession has also led more women to reconsider whether to leave the workforce once they marry, says Leslie Grossman, co-founder of the Women's Leadership Exchange, a Manhattan-based organization that promotes female entrepreneurship.

Many such women are choosing to continue to work on a freelance basis to maintain business connections -- just in case their husbands should lose their jobs.

Still, Grossman says, given the nation's high jobless rate, many wives looking to return to the world of work may find it more difficult to find employment. "It's extremely tough," she says. "It's easier to come back as freelancer than as a full-time employee in this recession."

And what of the husbands who've been laid off and can't find work? Grossman predicts that many will take a run at starting their own business. It's fine for a little while to kick back and let someone else bring home the bacon, Grossman says, "but there's going to come that point where they're going to be bored."

Then there's always the chance the wife, too, could lose her job. That can be devastating especially if the couple has children who still rely on the financial support of parents. In such a scenario, Grossman says, husbands will be faced with considering whether remaining unemployed doesn't jeopardize the safety of the family.