The Great Recession and Gender Marriage Transformation

This article was originally posted on Tikkun Daily on February 23, 2011.

The latest census figures (9/28/2010) have resulted in such mainstream articles as “New Vow: I Don’t Take Thee” in the Wall Street Journal, “Marriage Rate Falls to About 50% As People Say Institution Is Obsolete” in Bloomberg, and “Recession Rips at US Marriages, Expands Income Gap” from AP. The articles cite census figures showing that US marriages fell to record lows in 2009.

For the first time since the US began tracking marriage statistics in 1880, unmarried people of prime marrying age, 25-34, out numbered those who are married.

  • What has happened to create this tectonic shift in American marriage?
  • Two related changes are important to consider. One is in the US economy and the other is in North American gender relationships.
  • What Happened in the US Economy?

From 1820-1970, the United States experienced a unique period of ever-increasing prosperity. For 150 years, US salaries rose together with ever-increasing worker productivity. For one and a half centuries, each generation was able to afford a better standard of living than the generation that preceded it. That was the unique American dream (see Resnick and Wolff in my bibliography at the end of this post). Americans accepted our capitalist system in which each generation had relatively prospered. American labor fought for an increasing amount of income that would permit workers to consume more goods and services, a system in which each generation could move to jobs considered more prestigious and lucrative within the capitalist hierarchy. Blue-collar workers’ children could become white-collar, and white-collar children could become professionals in the next generation (particularly if they were not just white-collar but white, period). For a long time, there was a relative scarcity of white male workers available for the jobs reserved for white males in America’s racially and sexually segregated job markets. That phenomenon ended in the 1970s (see my article “American Depressions” in the Jan/Feb 2010 Tikkun).

By 1970 the introduction of computers, automation, more sophisticated telecommunications, and more efficient transportation enabled jobs to be outsourced. Outsourcing and sophisticated computer and telecommunications meant that employers no longer had to increase wages. In addition, minorities and women won the legal right to compete as equals in a diminishing marketplace. Wages froze. Profits continued rising and were accumulated at the top. White male workers, who were accustomed to receiving a family wage and living a lifestyle of ever-greater consumption could no longer support their families or their dominant bread earner positions on their now frozen real wages.

American white men lost a good deal of the male hegemony that accompanied family wages. In addition, the greater physical strength men have and their greater aggression are far less welcome in our changing labor force and in personal relationships as well.

US women adjusted to our changed role in the marketplace. In 1975, only 40% of US mothers with children under six years old were in the labor force. By now, 63.5% of mothers of children under age six and 60% of women with children under one are in the labor force (“Working Mothers Need Child Care”). Women now constitute half of the labor force (“A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything“).

Our changed roles have not been matched by men’s participation in childcare or home maintenance. The average unemployed man currently does less housework than his fully employed wife (“Class Struggle on the Home Front“). Many men want additional domestic and emotional services to compensate them for their lost manly provider roles.

To be fair to men another reason men have not stepped up to the plate is because we feminists did not figure out and publicize enough the enormous value of our traditional contributions to life. It is still not understood what valuable lessons are learned from maintaining life whether maintaining the physical basis for life in food and feeding people, in cleanliness and order and providing comfort or in the emotional labor of connecting deeply either with infants or children or intimate women friends or emotionally bonded lovers. Human life literally fails to thrive if infants have no emotional connection. Emotional bonds are crucial to mental health at every age. We have not done the work to understand our traditional contributions and insist that they be valued at home and in the marketplace. If we did that work, more men would see what they are missing and aspire to more of the traditionally female roles.

As if men’s current problems were not difficult enough, 75% of the 8 million jobs that are lost have been male jobs, in construction, manufacturing, and finance, all of which share a machismo identification (“American Depressions“).

Women now occupy most of the seats in higher education as well as at least half of the nations’ jobs (“A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything“).

Women have responded to men’s financial incapacity and refusal to share equally in housework and childcare. We now increasingly refuse to marry the men who cannot provide for us and still want full domestic and emotional services. Women now initiate most US divorces as well as refuse to marry in the first place (“American Depressions“).

We have the highest divorce rate in the world. We also have the weakest family supports amongst wealthy industrial nations. Women no longer can stand the extra work in caring for men who cannot support them and do not substantially lighten women’s triple shifts in domestic labor, emotional labor and childcare. The state does not step in as it does in Europe. There are no massive quality free day care centers, after-school programs and elder care allowances. Those jobs are still up to women. We can’t do it all.

As if that were not bad enough, men’s traditional roles in the home and marketplace are both becoming obsolete. Only two of the fifteen most rapidly increasing US jobs are male jobs, janitor and computer engineer (“A Woman’s Nation…”). All the rest are traditionally women’s jobs: nursing, home health care, child care, food preparation, etc. Nurturance and the ability to cooperate and socially connect are qualities associated with women and required in America’s new service economy. Male privilege lingers. The vestiges of male hegemony are found in such misogynist institutions as the military, The Christian Right, The National Rifle Association, The football industry, and heterosexual pornography.

Men are in limbo. They are afraid of heterosexual love relationships in which the rules have changed. They do not know how to function as equal partners. Men increasingly turn to pornography and away from relationships (“Porn addiction destroys relationships, lives” and watch Bill Maher on porn addiction).

Potential partners withdraw from a dismal picture, which adds an additional reason for the majority of people of prime marriage and childbearing age (18-34 years old) to remain unmarried.

These changes have a huge impact on American emotional and family relationships. Children will grow into a vastly reconfigured world. Psychology and economy interact with vast ramifications for us all. Families have shifted. Most US children will grow up without two present parents and without quality childcare provisions.

Marriage and the workplace must change and be more egalitarian or women will either elect not to marry, or they will divorce. Men’s more aggressive roles need to change to fit our current economy. Men need to function within egalitarian households. Women need to develop our understanding of the powerful lessons learned and gifts received in caring for people emotionally and physically. We need to teach each other and men the value of our labor as well as make sure that labor is richly compensated when it is marketed. For one example, because I cannot resist giving the example, is that jobs that require intense emotional labor like daycare and early childhood education and being a nurse or nursing aide or worker in elder care are among the worst paid jobs in America. A different explicit value system and political pressure could change that. Americans are experiencing tectonic shifts in personal life. Their ramifications are huge.


Boushey, H. “The New Breadwinners” in A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything-The Shriver Report. Washington DC: Center for American Progress.

Dougherty, C. September 28, 2010. ”New Vow: I Don’t Take Thee” Wall Street Journal.

Fraad, H. “American Depressions” January-February 2010 Tikkun, p. 17-24

Fraad, H., Resnick, R, and Wolff, R. 2009. ” For Every Knight in Shining Armor, There’s a Castle Waiting to be Cleaned” in Class Struggle on the Home Front, Graham Cassano, Ed. New York: Palgrave, p. 19-70.

Hochschild, A. 2000. “Global Care Chains and Emotional Surplus Value.” In Global Capitalism, Hutton, W. and Giddens, A. Eds. New York: The New Press, p.140-141.

Lopatta, E. November 18, 2010. “Marriage Rate Falls to About 50% As People Say Institution Is Obsolete” Bloomberg News.

Lipsyte, R, February 5, 2011. “Why Our National Superbowl TV Party Has Become the Last Supper for the US Empire.”

Nelson, M. Burton. 1994. The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Watch Football. New York: Houghton Millflin Harcourt.

Resnick, Stephen, & Richard Wolff (2010). “The Economic Crisis: A Marxian Interpretation”. Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society. 22, 170 – 186.

Stafford, E. 2008. “Panel Study of Income Dynamics, Detailed Study of Housework, University of Michigan Institute for Research.” Ann Arbor MI: Regents of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Yen, H. Oct 4, 2010. “Recession Rips at US Marriages, Expands Income Gap” Associated Press.

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