Women, Men, and Happiness: We're All in Transition

The huge societal shift brought about by women's move into the workforce has only begun to play out, and its consequences are truly complex. So when telling this story, we should be careful not to isolate our focus to just women.
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We're all talking about the Huffington Post column in which Marcus Buckingham dropped two pieces of disheartening news: "a) women are less happy than they were 40 years ago, compared with men, and b) as women get older, they get sadder." Using data over time from the General Social Survey as well as five other international studies, the study Buckingham cites, by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, indicates that women's subjective happiness is lessening as men's happiness is increasing.

In a New York Times column responding to Buckingham's piece, Maureen Dowd asks, "the more women have achieved, the more they seem aggrieved. Did the feminist revolution end up benefiting men more than women?" It is tempting to interpret Stevenson and Wolfers' data as fodder for the popular argument that feminism and the Women's Movement of the 1960s and 1970s somehow betrayed today's women. But when we look at 30 years of workforce data, we see gender roles are still truly in transition, and more so, it seems, with each passing year. This transition breeds disequilibrium as women gain more responsibility to contribute to family income while retaining the major share of family work responsibilities. Men are changing too, and reporting their fair share of stress. Like most things, the picture is complex.

Looking at the 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce, an ongoing nationally representative study of over 2800 wage and salaried employees in the United States, Families and Work Institute (FWI) has conducted in 1992, 1997, 2002, and 2008, and which began in 1977 with a Department of Labor study, several important data points stand out. For the first time since 1992, young women and young men (age 29 and under) don't differ in their desire for jobs with more responsibility. What's more, there is no difference between young women with and without children in their desire for more job responsibility.

Families are also under greater economic pressure, and women have played an increasingly important role in addressing--and for many families--easing this pressure. Women are now in the workforce in virtually equal numbers as men, a trend bolstered by the current recession that has cost more men their jobs than women. Four out of five couples are dual-earner couples today, and women in dual-earner couples contribute about 44% of the family income on average, up from 39% in 1977. In fact, one in four women (26%) now earn 10% or more than their husbands, up from 15% in 1997. The average hours worked per week in all jobs has increased for women, but not for men. Women worked significantly more hours in 2008 than in 1977 (40 hours and 43 hours, respectively) -- while the average work hours per week in all jobs has not changed significantly for men (48 hours in both years).

We find that the percentage of employees experiencing some or a lot of work-life conflict has increased significantly--from 34% in 1977 to 44% in 2008, and men report the most change. In his piece, Buckingham includes FWI data, noting "men's work-life conflict has increased significantly from 34% in 1977 to 45% in 2008, while women's work-life conflict has risen less dramatically and not significantly from 34% to 39%." So while women's happiness is decreasing, so too is men's work and family conflict.

Gender roles at home are changing too. Over the past three decades, mom's time with children under 13 has remained the same -- 3.8 hours on work days, while dad's time has increased from 2 hours to 3 hours. However, as Joan Williams points out on this site, married women still do much more housework than men do (17 hours a week, compared with men's 13, according to a University of Michigan study.) But here, too there is major change; the average married man only did 6 hours in 1976. FWI finds that since 1992, the number of men who take as much or more responsibility for children has risen 10% and that's according to women (from 21% to 31%)!

As we see, data from just the past decade tell the story of of a transition into new gender roles for both men and women. Even as women gain more responsibility at work, their responsibilities at home remain significant. The strong increase in men's self-reported work-life conflict speaks volumes about the huge role shift men are undergoing: from sole breadwinners with little responsibility for child rearing, to dual-earners who are and want to be more involved in family life.

This huge societal shift brought about by women's move into the workforce has only begun to play out. It impacts many areas of our lives, and its consequences are complex indeed. When we tell the story, we do a disservice to all of us if we only focus on either women (or men).