The end of times, it would appear, is upon us. At least that’s the word from the Fox network. The signs manifest as a Pew Research Center report, published last week, showing that mothers are now the sole or primary provider in forty percent of United States households with children.
Few subjects polarize as neatly along conservative-progressive lines as the changing structure of the family. So the zealous reaction to this report should not surprise anybody. Our favorite comes from “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on Fox Business. Viewing this clip from Australia confirmed our suspicion that political satire is obsolete.
The video neatly encapsulates the conservative concern that, as host Lou Dobbs put it, “society is dissolving all around us”. Thankfully, Erick Erickson was able to ground this concern in science when he put on his biologist hat to explain how the science of animal behavior substantiates the importance of defined breadwinner-dad and stay-at-home-mum roles:
I’m so used to liberals telling conservatives that they’re anti-science. But liberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology, when you look at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complimentary role.
Dobbs and his man-splaining panel drew fire, not only from the left, but even from Dobbs’ Fox Business colleague Megyn Kelly, who fired up at Dobbs and Erickson on ‘America Live’.
Personally, we’d point Dobbs, Erickson and friends to the work of anthropologists such as Adrienne Zihlman and Rebecca Bliege Bird, who have shown that in groups of modern foragers, women often provide the bulk of the calories for the group. Meanwhile, the men are often engaged in other lower value pursuits such as hunting big game (or working as Fox Business pundits) in the hope of signaling desirable traits to the hard working women.
Cooperation and Conflict in the Family
Beyond the self-parody, posturing and Erick Erickson’s dodgy take on comparative animal behavior, there are serious issues at stake here. The Pew Centre report, and the frenzied commentary surrounding it, exposes the very real conflicts that define family life. It takes a great deal of effort from parents and assorted relatives and friends to raise a child. This has driven the evolution one of the most sublime adaptations in our human repertoire: the capacity for families to cooperate closely over child-rearing and the accumulation and transfer of economic wealth.
In recent decades, economists and evolutionary biologists have, largely independently, arrived at similar conclusions that a delicate tension between cooperation and conflict sits at the heart of family life. Even though the parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, step-parents, step-children and other players in these families share a great deal of common interest, their economic and evolutionary interests never align perfectly. And that tension between cooperation and conflict shapes the way we behave in our sexual relationships and our families, as well as our positions on political and ideological issues.
We believe that the parallel insights coming out of evolution and economics are so important and underappreciated that we will host, next February, the Cooperation and Conflict in the Family Conference in Sydney, Australia. We will bring economists, evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and psychologists together to explore the potential for a closer synthesis between evolution and economics to address the compelling mysteries that surround sex, reproduction, marriage and the family.
A Divisive Issue
The Pew Center report reveals that the percentage of households in which the mother is either the primary or the sole breadwinner rose from 10.8 percent in 1960 to 40.4 percent in 2013.
But the report identifies two distinct categories, both of which have grown: single mothers with a median income of $23,000, and married mothers who earn more than their husbands with a median income of $80,000. The reactions of the all-male Fox panel blurs between the two groups of breadwinner moms. And it doesn’t take long for their fears to become transparent, as they quickly move from hand-wringing concern about single mothers and children growing up without fathers toward pontificating about gender roles within two-parent families.
Seldom does masculine insecurity stand so naked. The issue that most threatens to “undermine our social order”, as one of Lou Dobbs’ guests put it, is the idea that men’s value on the mating market and within the home is slipping. If women are able to provide for themselves, the opportunities for men to trade resources for sexual fidelity, in what Sarah Hrdy calls the “sex contract”, diminishes. Women may choose to raise families by themselves, unable or unwilling to partner with one the men available to them.
Mere days before the Pew Center research hit the headlines, a fascinating study by Chicago Booth School of Business economists Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica and Jessica Pan made a less immediate splash. Exploring a range of data sets, they showed that a strong aversion to wives out-earning their husbands affects a range of society-wide variables. When women earn more than men, marriage rates decline, divorce rates increase and marriage satisfaction drops.
Not only does the wife’s earning relative to that of her husband alter the dynamics of the marriage, the marriage also seems to alter how much a wife works in paid employment. Women with greater earning potential than their husbands tend to be less likely to enter paid employment or to work full-time.
Edging Toward Equality?
On one level, the rising number of breadwinner mothers might simply be the inevitable consequence of a nation and an economy edging, however glacially, toward gender equity. Should we be surprised that as women’s workplace participation rises and wage gaps shrink the proportion of breadwinner moms also rises?
But will it stop at 50 percent? And if it does so, will that herald our arrival at an equitable utopia in which women and men share the work of paid employment, child-rearing and unpaid domestic work evenly and flexibly?
Over the half-century covered by the Pew report, women won hard gains in the workplace and in controlling their own reproductive destinies. And those gains have delivered enormous social and economic benefits. But changes of that magnitude seldom come without unintended consequences, and those consequences may – as the men of Fox Business fear – involve serious and lasting changes to family structure and the lives women, men and children lead.
Research in this area hints at a world of opportunities to study how relative incomes shape couple formation, the dynamics of families and the well-being of children. We hope that our forthcoming conference will bring new perspectives to the shifting dynamics that define sex, reproduction and family life
Jason Collins is an Australian economist and is completing a PhD at the intersection of economics and evolutionary biology.
Rob Brooks is Professor of Evolutionary Ecology; Director, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre at University of New South Wales.