Experts note there’s a new breed of men who not only aren’t threatened by a woman’s larger paycheck but are grateful for it. This attitude is not universal, especially among older white men who have no positive model for it, says Michael Kimmel, distinguished professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. But an increasing number of men are happy being outearned, he says—not only because gender roles are changing but also because of our sluggish economy: Three quarters of those who lost their jobs in 2008 and 2009 were men. “This is not your grandfather’s Depression, because men aren’t the sole providers,” notes Kimmel, whose specialty is the study of masculinity. “So men’s losing their jobs hasn’t been the calamity for the family that it was in 1931.”
Still, when a husband’s earning power collapses in midmarriage, adjusting can be tough. Michele Wells, 55, a marketing and public relations consultant from Boulder, Colorado, met her 66-year-old husband back in the early ’80s. He was a high-tech industry analyst, she says, “a highflier who was always being quoted in BusinessWeek.” He earned more than Wells and had gone to Harvard and Princeton, which dazzled her.
As he neared 60, however, Wells’s husband lost his enthusiasm for working full time and devoted himself instead to managing the couple’s investments. That was OK with her—until the market went belly-up in 2008. To preserve their precrash standard of living, she wanted him to get a job. He balked, suggesting they should just live more cheaply. So Wells had to consider her priorities. She stuck with him—and not just because his clever investing helped them recoup much of what they’d lost. “Love doesn’t conquer all, but it helps immensely,” she says. “I enjoy his company. He’s a thinker and a reader, he’s still handsome, and the sex is still great. Would I be better off divorcing? When I think about the women I know and the things they’ve been through with men, the answer is no.”
Experts see this as a period of transition. “The general data indicate that gender norms are changing but that there’s also still some ambivalence,” observes D’Vera Cohn, senior writer at the Pew Research Center, which recently released several reports on gender and money. For example, she says, 67 percent of men and women polled in a 2010 national survey said a man needed to be prepared to support a family before he married—but only 33 percent felt that women had the same responsibility. And yet the change in attitudes has been huge. In the late 1970s, Cohn says, 48 percent of American men and women believed that the most satisfying marriage was one in which both partners worked and shared chores and parenting; by 2010 that figure had jumped to 62 percent.