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Death of the breadwinner: how the male breadwinner/female homemaker model collapsed

The change in economic conditions that turned women from an intrafamilial reserve army of labour into a permanent active service between postwar settlement and neoliberalism.  

11 September 2023

Death of the breadwinner: how the male breadwinner/female homemaker model collapsed

Although the paradigmatic family achieved significant saturation in the mid-twentieth century, and in spite of ongoing state efforts to maintain its centrality, the dominance of this model was in fact rather short lived. In some countries, the first shifts away from this form were almost immediate.

After a brief postwar dip, female employment in America began to climb again as early as 1947, and by 1950, 21 per cent of all white married women were in the labour force. A similar trend can be detected in Europe, with married women’s employment declining at first, before gaining pace in the 1950s.

In fact, despite this being the mythical era of the stay-at-home housewife, women were typically spending more time engaged in wage earning activities than had previously been the case. Such changes became ever more significant as we moved from the postwar settlement to the period of neoliberalism.

For many households, dual employment was not a straightforward matter of preference – a breakdown of the appeal of a male breadwinner ideal – but was in fact significantly motivated by economic conditions. The economic crises of the 1970s and the subsequent attacks on the workers’ movement ‘ultimately made it impossible for most working-class people to afford to keep an unwaged housewife out of the labour market’.

Already by the late 1970s, commentators were beginning to notice a gradual fading away of the family wage. Women were no longer acting as an intrafamilial reserve army of labour – a resource to be kept out of the waged workforce wherever possible and drawn on only in emergencies. Rather, they increasingly found themselves pressed into permanent active service. By the 1990s, most American households were dependent on two earners for maintaining their living standards. In the absence of decent wages and affordable necessities, women – as they always have – sought to contribute to their families’ income.

As such, the demise of the male breadwinner model must be understood in relation to the disintegration of the economic conditions that enabled that form to become temporarily hegemonic; the family is itself partly reflective of the material conditions of the economy.

It becomes further apparent that women’s increasing hours in the wage workplace are the result of something other than unfettered personal preference when one considers the role of the state in this process. Whereas the postwar welfare state instituted a strict divide between the unwaged work of women and the waged work of men, the contemporary neoliberal state seeks to expand the labour force through an increasingly insistent demand that everyone be made dependent on waged work – equal opportunities exploitation.

If the postwar welfare state had helped to decommodify workers by reducing their dependence on the market, the contemporary welfare state aims to ‘recommodify them by supporting market competition rather than replacing it’. A large part of this effort has been through labour activation policies designed to push and pull people into work, through both negative activation policies (e.g., cutting benefits or reducing their length) and positive activation policies (e.g., job training). Anything that is seen to disincentivise waged work must be reduced or removed. As a result, the generosity of unemployment benefits has been cut in most countries.

As part of this general approach, targeted efforts have been made to coerce women in particular into the workforce. In 1968, for example, Sweden explicitly moved from a dual roles model (built upon an assumed sharp gendered division of labour, in which women would take time off from paid employment to look after children) to a universal breadwinner model. Today, nearly every welfare state of the Global North follows this approach, facilitated again by welfare cuts that have increasingly pushed women into waged work.

In the America of the early 1970s, for example, cuts to welfare for women with children meant that mothers struggled to survive on dwindling benefits; Black mothers in particular found themselves driven to engage in political struggle for the means to sustain themselves. American welfare reform in the 1990s further focused on getting people away from benefits and into work, leading to increases in women’s employment. Most notoriously, changes introduced in 1996 involved a work requirement for single parents receiving payments and set a time limit on receipt of the benefit.

In the UK, meanwhile, income support for single parents used to apply for children up to sixteen years of age; now it only applies for children up to five, with the explicit expectation that parents of school-age children will take on waged labour. That’s over a decade’s worth of support for single parents unceremoniously rescinded. A variety of other welfare changes in the past twenty years have also aimed to steer British mothers specifically into employment, with considerable success.

The age of the male breadwinner/female homemaker is well and truly over, then. These changes hold across every advanced capitalist country (although with some continuing to lag in absolute terms). For instance, the number of two-parent households where the mother stays at home while the father works decreased from 46 per cent in 1970 to 26 per cent in 2015. In America, the proportion of mothers working more than fifty weeks per year went from 19 per cent in 1965 to 57 per cent by 2000.

The collapse of the male breadwinner model has, however, meant slightly different things in different countries. Sweden, for instance, has facilitated full-time employment of women, but most often in traditionally feminised sectors such as childcare or nursing. Places like the UK and the Netherlands, by contrast, have removed labour regulations and channelled women into more part-time and temporary positions. The US, meanwhile, has enabled more opportunities for women to do full-time work in traditionally masculinised sectors but at the cost of excluding the poor, the less educated, and women of colour. While the paths have differed, the results have been the same: the demise of the male breadwinner model. 

— Excerpted from After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time by Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek


After Work
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