Hanna Rosin reality check, part whatever

In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Hanna Rosin’s cover story is adapted from her forthcoming book The End of Men. The question posed on the cover is, “Who Wears the Pants in This Economy?” (Spoiler alert: it’s men).

The article profiles married-couple families with unemployed or underemployed men depending on the incomes of wives working in the new economy. Her handful of anecdotes are accompanied by ominous images like this (her triumphant and resolved, him a shell of his former self):

NYT photo by Ann Weathersby

The anecdotes are fascinating and well told, but they are also grossly overplayed. In one interview, she reports:

When I talked with Patsy in the family room at their house, she forbade Reuben to come downstairs, because he can sometimes dominate conversations. She quarantined him on the second floor, and I caught glimpses of him carrying a basket of laundry.

For Rosin, all this points to a “nascent middle-class matriarchy” in which “It’s not hard to imagine a time when the prevailing dynamic in town might be female bosses shutting men out of the only open jobs.”

But is it too much to first imagine the way things actually are?

The families she profiles live a short drive from Auburn, Alabama. Auburn, she reports, is “a reflection of the modern, feminized economy: a combination of university, service and government jobs.” It is “an especially good place for women,” where “young, single, childless women in their 20s working full time have a higher median income than equivalent young men.” (On this grotesquely contorted statistic, also anchoring Liza Mundy’s book, see this post.)

But the couples in her story – where the women are wearing the pants – aren’t young, single, and childless. So, what is happening with real married couples? Auburn makes up about half the population of Lee County. So I took a look at the roughly 25,000 married couples in that county sampled by the American Community Survey in the years 2006-2010, restricted to those in which the wife is in the age range 20-54.

For each wife, I asked what percentage of the family’s total income comes from her earnings. Here is the distribution of wives’ earnings share:

In this county, wives earn 50% or more of all family income in 20.4% of families, compared with 19.5% in the country overall. In 32% of families the wife earns less than 10% of family income, a little less than the 35% average for the country. But: In 1% of married-couple families the wife earns all the money. The future is now. Look out!

This isn’t the whole story of the “nascent middle-class matriarchy.” But debunking The End of Men is a multi-post process (here’s the most recent), leading up to a presentation I’ll give (among many others) for a conference at Boston University in October.

10 thoughts on “Hanna Rosin reality check, part whatever

  1. Well, speaking as a guy whose wife has taken over the family business, leaving me to care for the kids, it’s not hard to imagine that Ms. Rosin has a point. Obviously from a sociological point of view, I’m just another anecdote, and she’s — to put it nicely — extrapolating from available data to make her point. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder. She’s obviously caught a tailwind from the Zeitgeist, and I’m sure there are active trends that will continue to move us in the direction she posits. It’s been shown, as she notes, that women have certain advantages as managers and business leaders. Women are trained from girlhood to frame their personal worlds in terms of getting along with others, managing a social situation — precisely the skill set which has lead my wife Heather to become such an effective business manager.

    In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in many ways, the increased power women wield does represent the best aspects of the cultural / business shifts we are going through (even if that increase is not all Ms. Rosin suggests).

    So it may all be poor sociology, but it’s great fortune-telling, and for my part, I continue to cheer for Hanna Rosin as the harbinger of a new world.


    1. Re: “In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in many ways, the increased power women wield does represent the best aspects of the cultural / business shifts we are going through (even if that increase is not all Ms. Rosin suggests”

      I agree. Yours is also a good counter-example because you weren’t laid off from a manufacturing job before she took over. Instead, you have a business and a family capable of flexibly responding to maximize both of your skills. If that’s the future, that’s pretty good news.


  2. This reply came from Reeve via email:

    2 questions:

    a. Do we have any trend data yet?  19.5% is being way over-interpreted, but maybe it’s rising since earlier years?  maybe this is a gender trend that has not stalled?

    b. How much of the 19.5% could be due to the greater volatility of male earnings?  Male construction workers, miners, financial investors, etc. can have big year-to-year fluctuations in income.  In bad years, they may fall below their wives who may be more bureaucratically & steadily employed.  But as a function of “permanent incomes”, the husband’s income is still expected to be higher so the annual fluctuation may not confer as much household power as when wives regularly have higher earnings. …  Just a speculation. I’m not even sure of my assumption about men’s earnings being more volatile is correct.


    1. In response to (a): Pew had a report that showed the % of couples with the wide earning more rising from 4% in 1970 to 22% in 2007 (my write up: https://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/more-wives-make-more/). I haven’t looked at it for intervening years, but will ASAP.

      For (b), it’s a good question, something for SIPP or NLSY. I think we do not want to start throwing around terms like “matriarchy” based on a short-term income discrepancy within a minority of families — that’s not all there is to power, right?


      1. Perhaps not, but — if my own experience is a guide, and I think it might be — we are moving in that direction. If women, speaking broadly, have stronger social and organizational skills, and our economy is beginning to take advantage of this fact, women will end up managing more of our corporate world. Which would be a good thing, I think.

        To put it another way, when women no longer have to be twice as good to get half the credit, the revolution may be here.


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