The Great Recession of 2008 changed gender relations in the United States. While the unemployment rates for men and women normally move together fairly tightly, between December 2008 and March 2010, the unemployment rate for men aged 20 and above was, on average, more than two points higher than the unemployment rate among women. While the number of households in which women are the chief breadwinners has been rising slowly in the US since the 1980s, the number of households in which women earned more than men underwent a sudden and unprecedented spike. By following how the social views of individual men changed over that time, we can see how important breadwinner status is for men – and how they adapt when it’s threatened. It turns out that both conservative and liberal men double down on their partisan views when their income gap grows: Republicans become more socially conservative, and Democrats become more liberal.
The Great Recession of 2008 was a watershed moment in American society for many reasons — but one of the underappreciated effects may be how the recession changed gender relations in America. While the unemployment rates for men and women normally move together fairly tightly, between December 2008 and March 2010, the unemployment rate for men aged 20 and above was, on average, more than two points higher than the unemployment rate among women. Even using the more forgiving seasonally adjusted rates, in January, 2010, unemployment among men was 2.3 points higher than among women (10.2 percent versus 7.9 percent). In the aggregate, this translates to millions of households in which wives earned more than their husbands, and while the number of households in which women are the chief breadwinners has been rising slowly in the US since the 1980s, the number of households in which women earned more than men underwent a sudden and unprecedented spike. By following how the social views of individual men changed over that time, we can see how important breadwinner status is for men — and how they adapt when it’s threatened.
In previous research discussed in HBR, I’ve described how concern about women earning more than their husbands decreased support for Hillary Clinton (but not Bernie Sanders) in the 2016 election, but this is only part of a long line of research on how men try to compensate when their masculinity is threatened in some way.
In a clear-cut example, researchers had men carry out what was described as either a “rope-reinforcing” or a “hair braiding” task and then gave the men the opportunity to publicly or privately indicate their sexuality. Men who were told that the task was “hair braiding” were much more likely to publicly declare their heterosexuality than those who had been doing the “masculine” task. Masculinity, in essence, is something that men earn, rather than something they naturally have, and it therefore exists in a permanently tenuous state. The man card can be revoked at any time. That means that men have to find some way to reinforce their gender role in response to anything that might be seen to threaten it. Loss of income relative to a spouse seems like an especially potent threat to masculinity: earning less than their wives has been linked to men needing erectile dysfunction medication, as well as an increased likelihood of sexual infidelity.
However, figuring out how relative income impacts political and social views is difficult, as men aren’t randomly assigned to marry someone who makes more or less than they do. If views differ between men who earn more than their wives and those who earn less, it could be because relative earnings make a difference — or it could be that the two groups were different to begin with. The best way to control for this is to make use of panel data: talking to the same men repeatedly over time to see how their attitudes have shifted. Here, I’m looking at 854 men interviewed up to three times, as part of the General Social Survey, at two-year intervals between 2006 and 2010. Each time, they were asked some of the same questions, meaning that the data can show how their views shifted in response to changes in their lives. My analysis examines how the tumultuous economy of the time affected their views on two issues: support for abortion and support for government aid to African-Americans.
I found that Republican men who contributed less to their household income than they did two years prior became significantly less supportive of abortion rights, and the more income that they lost relative to their spouses, the more their support for abortion dropped. About a quarter of men lost 38% or more in relative income (dropping, for instance, from 70% of the family’s income to 32%), and men who saw an income drop of that magnitude dropped by an average of of 0.3 points on the eight-point abortion scale (respondents were asked about seven situations in which a woman might want an abortion, and their score went up by one point each time they responded that they would support a woman’s right to have an abortion under those circumstances). Men who lost more in relative income — those in the top 10% of income losses — saw bigger decreases: up to 0.8 points on the scale.
Among Democratic men, losing income relative to their spouse led them to be, on average, about 0.5 points more supportive of abortion rights, while men who gained income relative to their spouses actually became less supportive. When faced with gender role threat, liberal men come to hold more liberal views on abortion, while conservative men come to hold more conservative views. To put these changes in perspective, the average difference between a liberal and a conservative on this scale is about two points, so moving even a tenth of a point represents a significant shift.
Similar effects hold for views on government aid to African Americans. It would normally be expected that individuals expressing extreme views would be a little less extreme two years later, and Democratic men do generally become a little less supportive, and Republican men generally become a little more supportive. However, Democratic men who lost income relative to their spouses became more supportive of aid to African Americans, while Republican men became less so.
Results like this lead to a few conclusions. First, while it has been decades since most married women were homemakers, being the primary breadwinner in a household is still a big part of the gender identity of many American men. Money and work are about more than finances — they’re tied deeply to how people view themselves. While men with strong political views seem to react to a threat to their gender role by doubling down on their political and social attitudes, it seems that not all men have the same conceptions of masculinity; perhaps for liberal men, the shock of losing relative income has led these men to conclude that they can’t define themselves through traditionally masculine roles, and led them to rebel against them as best they can. (Registered Independents would presumably react differently, though I didn’t examine them in my analysis.) Whatever the mechanism, more and more men will find themselves dealing with losing relative income as technological innovations increasingly displace male-dominated jobs, and men will need to find a way to define their identity in a way that doesn’t require that they earn more than their wives.