1. SECOND-FIDDLE HUSBANDS
The traditional notion of the male breadwinner has been turned upside down as American women in larger numbers are now bringing home substantial paychecks, while a lot of younger men are treading water or worse. Some women on strong careers path seek out similarly accomplished men, but others are looking for something else—a second-fiddle husband. This new kind of husband understands that with someone else holding the economic reins, he will need to take on more of the traditional home and child-rearing responsibilities that were previously carried out by women.
Women have always had a lot of power in marital relationships, but that power has not typically flowed from education, career, and money. Now it increasingly does. Women are more educated than ever before, with women college graduates outnumbering men by a ratio of 60 percent to 40 percent. It’s predicted that by 2023 females will outnumber male graduates by almost half. Just as many Mad Men–era men preferred less ambitious women, it’s to be expected that there are women who now feel the same way.
Historically, men were often in a bind. If they were not successful at work, they were not successful at home. As the nature of work has been changing from factory and strength-related jobs to growing numbers of jobs that require a lot of mental work, socialization, and patience, a lot of men have been falling behind. They are the ones who get into car crashes and hazing incidents, have drug overdoses, and wind up in jail. Even the run-of-the-mill guy is just not doing as well in the transition to the Information Age.
1.1: Female Breadwinners by Household Income, 1967–2010
Source: Center for American Progress
Now a second-fiddle husband can be a flop at work and still be a success at home as a loving, faithful husband. His life will no longer be measured by his salary or work title. For the men who enter a marriage with these new responsibilities and this new outlook, the second-fiddle-husband trend can be a godsend, freeing them from a life of work anxiety and failure.
Both in the United States and abroad, the number of second-fiddle-husband marriages is on the rise. Work hours are increasing for two-worker families, and the increase is being driven almost entirely by women. The number of breadwinning wives is highest among the more educated and appears connected to the outpacing in education of American women over American men, which creates a smaller dating pool of successful men.
Part of the rise of second-fiddle husbands is due to changing
attitudes toward parenting and work and a more egalitarian outlook toward child care and career. Comfort with the idea of a woman being the primary breadwinner is especially prevalent among millennial men. A Pew Research Center study found the number of stay-at-home dads has doubled since 1989—from 1.1 million to 2.2 million in 2012. Unemployment was a factor in this, including the recession, but there’s also a long-term growth pattern for men as primary caregivers. In the same study, 21 percent of stay-at-home fathers reported staying home to care for their families, which is four times more than 1989, when that number was only 5 percent.
Second-fiddle husbands are part of our pop culture narrative, too, as seen in Sex and the City’s Miranda and Steve (Miranda was a powerful lawyer and Steve worked at a bar) and the movie The Intern, in which Anne Hathaway is a successful CEO of an e-commerce start-up and her husband stays at home. However, these aren’t always the prettiest depictions. In both instances the husbands cheat on the wives, and the wives blame themselves and their “workaholic” tendencies. Expect that trope to change with the ascent of the second fiddles.
There are generally two categories of second-fiddle-husband marriages. The first is by choice: the husband and wife have decided, often as a key tenet of their partnership, that the wife will be the primary earner in the family. The other is by circumstance, such as a medical issue or a layoff. The couples that choose this arrangement rather than being forced into it are, typically, far more successful.
A 2014 Money survey reported in Time magazine found that households in which women earn as much as men were just as in love and a tad happier than the average household. The survey found that 83 percent of the second-fiddle-husband households were very or extremely happy compared to 77 percent for the rest. And they found that in these households there was no shortage of romance—in fact 51 percent called said that their relationships were “very good” or “hot” compared to 43 percent of spouses overall. A 2012 study published by the American Sociological Association on more egalitarian marriages found that both “husbands and wives in couples with more traditional housework arrangements report higher sexual frequency,”
suggesting these marriages are mostly win-win arrangements.
The not-by-choice second-fiddle marriages don’t fare nearly as well. These men are second fiddle by default. Fifty-eight percent of stay-at-home fathers reported that they were actively looking for employment, as opposed to only 27 percent of stay-at-home mothers. It is unclear whether this is because they want to earn more or because they were looking for work so as not to feel emasculated. The same Pew Research Center study cited above found that 23 percent of these fathers polled were looking for jobs but couldn’t find them. The largest percentage of stay-at-home fathers, 35 percent, is due to illness or disability, which is a stark contrast to the 11 percent of mothers who stay at home due to injury.
According to Byrne and Barling (2017), when wives outearn their husbands, it can sometimes create something the researchers call “status leakage,” aka “negative feelings about a husband’s lower status,” or even dissatisfaction with the relationship. Women more often feel negative feelings about their husbands’ lower status, and men more often feel emasculated when they’re put in this type of partnership involuntarily. According to Luscombe (2013), citing a Kate Ratliff paper, these types of pairings can incite competition and resentment. According to the paper, it was found that “men automatically interpret a partner’s success as their own failure” despite not being in competition.
In Bertrand et al. (2013), it was found that there was a general aversion among those surveyed to a situation where a wife outearns her husband. This “aversion also impacts marriage formation, the wife’s labor force participation, the wife’s income conditional on working, marriage satisfaction, likelihood of divorce, and the division of home production.” But this hasn’t deterred women from pursuing degrees and advanced degrees in record numbers. Among “mixed education” marriages, there is indeed an uptick in college-educated women “marrying down.” This type of marriage went from 12.8 percent of all new marriages in 2008 to 14.7 percent in 2015. The other type of mixed marriage—where the man has more education than the woman—has
remained extremely steady, holding at around 8.6 percent of all new marriages. But during this same time college-college marriages went from 19.9 percent of all new marriages to 24.5 percent. This is predictably a function of more people (especially women) going to college.
Internationally, second-fiddle-husband pairings are also on the rise. Klesment & Van Bavel (2015) found that in an EU-wide survey, if a woman is more educated, it will increase the odds that she is the primary breadwinner. From the same study: “Unlike the situation 40 years ago, a wife taking a job today tends to stabilize a marriage. But when she earns more than 60 percent of the income, the risk of divorce rises again.”
In 21 percent of heterosexual marriages in the United Kingdom, the wife is the primary breadwinner. The percentage increased within
eighteen EU countries between 2006 and 2010. However, some countries with a stronger model of the male breadwinner and head of household—Italy, Greece, Austria, and Germany—are bucking the second-fiddle trend.
1.2: Percentage of Female Breadwinners in Select European Union Countries
Source: Martin Klesment and Jan Van Bavel
Rising female breadwinners also correspond with crises in the economy, which cause many high-earning men to lose their jobs. Countries such as Greece and Spain, hit badly by the economic crisis in 2008, saw a rise in female breadwinners. The crisis was the first in which men were laid off first and women were more likely to retain their jobs.
As women become more economically powerful in the U.S. and abroad, more may simply avoid getting married and having children altogether unless there are enough potential second-fiddle husbands to meet the demand. This is already occurring in South Korea and could escalate significantly in the U.S. In Japan, matchmakers are pairing men with poorer women because successful, educated women who would have to drop out of the workforce to stay at home are rejecting that traditional choice. While there have been a lot of policies geared to helping women stay at home, policies for second-fiddle husbands are generally weak and often the butt of jokes.
Second-fiddle-husband arrangements also affect economic factors like lifestyle and purchasing habits, as well as money management. According to Weisser and Renzulli (2014), female breadwinners like to manage their money and have substantial financial literacy. Also, the more a wife earns, the “greater her involvement in all aspects of the family’s finances—especially the responsibilities that have traditionally been the purview of men, such as investing and retirement planning.” In the future, this is apt to lead to more financially illiterate men who will need help in later years and be less able to deal with divorce, the workforce, or retirement. As there are more and more second-fiddle husbands, divorce agreements could come as quite a shock to high-wage-earning wives if they get hit with huge alimony and divorce payments. And for the first time you could have significant numbers of men living off alimony because they were not the significant breadwinner and have few prospects of getting a good job.
1.3: Pay Gap Percentage for Parents Versus Non-Parents by Gender
Source: The Atlantic
The second-fiddle-husband trend is significant in America but it is really having profound implications in South Korea. According to Ma (2016), when women earn more in South Korea, they want fewer children. Whereas before wives in South Korea were the homemakers and their main job was to have and care for their children, as women have become a bigger part of the labor force, with more education and earning more money, they are unlikely to want to have larger numbers of children. Just as in the U.S., women in South Korea earn less than their male counterparts. However, when South Korean
women have children, the gap between their earnings and those of American mothers widens substantially. American mothers earn approximately 25 percent less than American fathers, but South Korean mothers earn nearly 50 percent less than South Korean fathers.
South Korea also doesn’t support progressive work policies, like flexible hours, which would allow South Korean women to have children and strong careers. Paid maternity leave with job protection didn’t even exist in the country until 2001. Second-fiddle-husband arrangements are found to be less successful in countries where the woman-as-caregiver model is traditionally strongest, as is the case in South Korea. All of these trends mean that South Korea could be in for a rude awakening.
The key to being a successful second-fiddle husband is not letting the benefits of being number two on the earnings chart turn into resentment and loathing, but to instead to use it as a springboard to more happiness and a stronger partnership. Second-fiddle husbands may never become the majority. However, as women continue to become more educated and move up the career ladder, they will frequently be first-fiddle wives—and will need their own support networks and frameworks. These first-fiddle wives will need access to child care, investment counseling, and divorce protection. The alternative is that a lot of these women who are excelling will simply pass up on marriage and children altogether, joining the ranks of the never married, and that would be a great loss for men and women today, as well as for future generations.