After the Recession, Do Women Wear the Pants in the Family?

What happens when macho jobs in manufacturing decline, at the same time as traditionally female occupations in the health care and services sector continue to expand? In her new book “The End of Men: The Rise of Women,” Hanna Rosin argues that “a nascent middle-class matriarchy” emerges, in which women pay the bills and the pay gap between men and women narrows and even disappears, but for the worst reason possible: because men can no longer find jobs.

“An important long-term issue is that men are not doing as well as women in keeping up with the demands of the global economy,” said Michael Greenstone in an interview with Rosin. Greenstone is an M.I.T economist and director of the Hamilton Project, which studies men and unemployment. “It’s a first-order mystery for social scientists, why women have more clearly heard the message that the economy has changed and men have such a hard time hearing it or responding.”

Rosin spoke with many men and women who find themselves part of this new paradigm. Reuben Prater, of Alexander City, Ala. once ran a successful business providing special cleaning services for mill floors, but when the mills declined, so did his business. He attempted to find work in his field, but didn’t consider a shift to one of the more in-demand industries like nursing or teaching, because:

“We’re in the South,” he told Rosin. “A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.”

His wife, Patsy Prater, on the other hand, had little experience working outside the home — and lower expectations in terms of wages. She taught music at a daycare center, and went to night school to get a degree in special education. By chance, she stumbled upon a job at the city housing authority and with it, her new career. Two promotions later, she’s the director of family services, and her family’s breadwinner, albeit for less money than her husband once earned.

She’s not alone. More and more families are seeing women step into the breadwinner role as traditionally female jobs gain and traditionally male jobs decline. Of course, the real gain would be if those jobs are compensated at a rate similar to the old, disappearing manufacturing jobs. When that happens, we’ll know that we haven’t seen the end of men — but the end of “women’s work.”

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