The World Upside Down05-04-11-margaret.jpg

Several years ago, a friend of mine confided that she was the breadwinner in her family, that while her husband has a professional career as well, she is the one who really brings home the bacon.

This was a revelation to me, because at that time, I simply had no idea what was unfolding not only among people I know but throughout our community and our nation.

Women, it seems, are indeed earning more money than the men in their lives, making their jobs the most important ones in the family and rearranging the family landscape regarding who does the chores and who minds the children. So I was not entirely surprised by last month’s news on this score in demographics released by the U.S. Census Bureau. For the fi rst time in American history, more women are earning advanced college degrees than our male counterparts. This appears to be an extension of the trend which began in the 1980s with more women enrolled in college than men and then more women earning diplomas than men.

News reports of these Census numbers use words like “redefining,” and it is clear to me that “redefi nition” has been underway for some time and is likely accelerating. If change is evolutionary, then stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and think how much has changed in our gender roles in a relatively short period of time.

There are women alive in our nation today, those born before 1920, who arrived into a world that did not allow them to vote. It was apparently assumed at that time that women were not capable of making our own political choices and therefore should not be allowed to have a ballot. Now remember that in the last Presidential-election cycle, an American woman, Hillary Clinton, was considered a viable Presidential candidate and now holds one of the most important jobs in the world.

That, my friends, is true redefi nition.

I was disconcerted, but hardly shocked by a recent Newsweek cover story entitled the “Beached White Male,” complete with a photograph of a man in a business suit and brief case with a big black X covering his body. The article points out that the Great Recession has hit middle-aged white men in the workforce especially hard and speculates whether or not that demographic group will survive the ongoing downturn in our economy. It also notes that while these men are understandably dispirited by their situations, they are reluctant to embrace technological advances now common in the workplace or evolving gender roles within their own households. The word “denial” is used in that story. Census fi gures indicate younger men may be a bit more adaptable.

As women’s educational levels advance and gender discrimination in the workplace falls away, a more diverse range of jobs are opening up and women are tackling them. In some instances, the men in these women’s lives are deciding to stay home for all sorts of reasons. The Census Bureau tells us that there are nearly 2 million stay-at-home dads in our country today, almost 1 in 15 fathers who are the primary caregivers for their children. These numbers include only non-employed fathers who have chosen this role, not those who work from home or who continue to look for work, meaning that there are likely many more. Some researchers say that if there is a stay-at-home parent in the family, 1 out of 5 will be the dad.

Here again, these are just numbers, and we are free to interpret them as we choose. Researchers, though, do see some trends in them.

Many contend that women’s higher educational attainments are getting us out of the house and into the workplace in higher numbers while men’s lower educational levels and concentration in male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing hard hit by the Great Recession, or as some are now calling it the “man-cession,” are indeed translating into fewer stay-at-home moms and more stay-at-home dads. Today’s stay-at-home mom is more likely to be a younger, foreign-born Hispanic without a college degree than a professional woman who has made a conscious choice to stay home with her children.

I have no idea what all this change means for our country over time, but I do know it is true because I see it all around me.

I do wonder, though, what my grandmother who had one year of college and to my knowledge never once worked outside her home would think of the way her grandchildren and great grandchildren live now. I am certain that my grandfather, a dignifi ed Southern breadwinner and a thoroughly traditional fellow, would be absolutely astounded.

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