Dual earner couples are romantically involved (either married or unmarried) and each contribute to the financial support of their household through their work outside the home. The presence of dual earner couples has increased over the last 40 years, as there has been a shift away from the traditional male breadwinner and female homemaker family type. The breadwinner homemaker model waned in prevalence as women entered the workforce in large numbers, especially after the 1950s. For example, in 1976, 31 percent of women with infants under 1 year old worked outside the home; by 2002, 54.6 percent did so (US Census Bureau 2002). These figures are significantly higher for women with school aged children and women who are not parents. The influx of women into the workplace occurred for a number of reasons, including more equal access to education and occupations, greater demand for workers in the service sector of the economy, and social changes brought on by the women’s movement. As a result, an increasing number of women provide significant financial support to their families (Gornick & Meyers 2003).
Families with lower incomes have historically been more likely than those with middle or higher incomes to rely on the earnings of two workers. Today, however, advantaged women (such as middle class, white, married women) are increasingly likely to contribute to their family incomes. Dual earner couples are more common in part because of the declining value of men’s wages. Women’s earnings have been extremely important in helping families maintain their standard of living, especially for working class and lower middle class couples (Bianchi & Spain 1996). Although women’s wages have risen over time, women still earn substantially less than men for nearly all occupations (US Census Bureau 2000).
Dual earner couples are diverse in their family situations and experiences. They can be married with children, married without children, cohabitating heterosexual couples, or cohabiting same sex couples. The experiences associated with having two workers in the house hold also vary depending on one’s stage of life. For example, dual earner couples with young children face different rewards and challenges in balancing work and family than ‘‘empty nest’’ couples who are looking toward retirement (Moen 2003). Despite this diversity in experience, dual earner couples often encounter particular benefits, strains, and tensions as they integrate and balance two careers with a roman tic relationship and home life.
Dual earner couples often make decisions about when and whether to have children with the concerns of balancing two careers and a family in mind. Dual earner couples are increasingly delaying having children until their career paths are established. In 1960, 60 percent of women aged 20 to 24 and three quarters of women aged 25 to 29 had become parents (White 1999). Forty years later, the percentage of women with children in these age groups had declined to 33 and 55 percent, respectively (US Census Bureau 2002). In addition to delaying children, some dual earner couples choose not to have children.
Dual earner couples frequently must decide whose career will receive a higher priority. Decisions that advance one member of the couple’s career may, at the same time, put the other’s career on hold. In the past, priority was almost always given to the husband’s career. Presently, though this approach remains a common strategy, these couples are less likely to place a higher priority on the husband’s career and are more likely to take a variety of factors beyond gender into consideration.
Dual earner couples must redefine what their breadwinner/homemaker counterparts have already classified as measures of success. Traditionally, a breadwinner husband is successful when he financially supports his family and a homemaker wife is successful when she emotionally supports her family and takes care of their home. Dual earning affords both members of a couple opportunities to feel successful by fulfilling both home and work responsibilities. Moen et al. (2003) report that feelings of success are not dependent on a tradeoff or balancing act between the two realms of home and work, but on a sense of living a well-rounded life. The benefits of the dual earning situation include financial stability, the potential for greater gender equality, and positive mental health.
To meet their personal and professional needs, dual earner couples rely on a number of strategies to structure their work and home lives, such as carefully negotiating schedules or number of work hours. Those with children are more likely to have a large discrepancy in the number of hours that each parent works, whereas couples without children typically have similar work hour arrangements. Mothers are still much more likely than fathers to scale back or rearrange their work hours in order to take care of children. This gender difference reveals that dual earner couples’ choices are often ‘‘neo traditional’’ in character (Moen & Sweet 2003). Many of these families with children work different shifts – such as weekends or nights – in order to minimize the amount of necessary childcare. One study, for example, found that one third of dual earner couples with preschool aged children worked such a ‘‘split shift’’ (Presser 1999).
The absence of a full time homemaker makes it necessary for these families to employ a variety of strategies to achieve a well-managed house hold, as they must fit the responsibilities of running a household into their often limited time at home. The total amount of time spent doing housework in America has been declining, especially among employed wives. Many families hire outside help to fill this time gap. Although some dual earner couples strive for an egalitarian division of labor, others do not. As a result, women are more likely to take on the ‘‘second shift’’ responsibilities at home (Hochschild 1989). That is, despite labor force participation, women are more likely to take on a managerial role in the home and perform about twice as much of the housework as men. The ‘‘time bind’’ that results from combining long work hours with home responsibilities can be a source of stress for many families. As work offers greater external rewards than home, many families report feeling more successful and relaxed at work, while time pressed at home (Hochschild 2000).
Dual earner couples often experience what is known as ‘‘spillover:’’ ‘‘the transfer of mood, affect, and behavior between work and home’’ (Roehling et al. 2003: 101). Spillover can be both positive and negative. For example, positive work to family spillover occurs when feelings of success at work lead to a relaxed attitude at home. Conversely, when stress at work causes a parent to lose patience with a child at home, negative work to family spillover may be to blame. An example of positive family to work spillover occurs when workers are more productive on their jobs as a result of experiencing a satisfying family life. An example of negative family to work spillover includes family intrusions on work time. Workplaces that are supportive of employees’ home commitments and that offer higher levels of worker autonomy tend to result in less negative spillover. The opposite is true of jobs with lower levels of support or flexibility. For dual earner couples, negative spillover can have a significant impact, as both partners are negotiating similar work and family commitments. Negative spillover tends to be less of a problem for those couples who work similar, and fewer (less than 45), hours per week (Roehling et al. 2003).
The benefits, strains, and tensions of the dual earning situation are commonly thought of as personal matters. This perception persists even though there is a widening gap between workers’ needs and governmental and work place policies. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees many workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for an immediate family member during a time of serious illness. While this policy is helpful for many workers, not all employees are covered under the law and its unpaid nature makes it difficult for many workers to take leave from their jobs. Workplace policies, the most common of which is flextime, do not adequately recognize the demands facing dual earner couples. For example, employers often expect workers to place all home life responsibilities on their spouses. Issues pertaining to childcare, health care benefits, and the number of hours that employees must work to be considered ‘‘full time’’ are all ripe for new policy innovation to support the most common working arrangement among American families. Whether policy makers will push for more changes to bring work life policies in line with home life realities remains to be seen.
- Bianchi, S. M. & Spain, D. (1996) Women, Work, and Family in America. Population Bulletin 51: 3.
- Gornick, J. C. & Meyers, M. K. (2003) Families That Work: Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and Employment. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
- Hochschild, A. (with A. Machung) (1989) The Sec ond Shift. Viking, New York.
- Hochschild, A. (2000). The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. Henry Holt, New York.
- Moen, P. (2003) Epilogue: Toward a Policy Agenda. In: Moen, P. (Ed.), It’s About Time: Couples and Careers. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, pp. 334 7.
- Moen, P. & Sweet, S. (2003) Time Clocks: Work- Hour Strategies. In: Moen, P. (Ed.), It’s About Time: Couples and Careers. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, pp. 17 34.
- Moen, P., Waismel-Manor, R., & Sweet, S. (2003) Success. In: Moen, P. (Ed.), It’s About Time: Couples and Careers. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, pp. 133 52.
- Presser, H. B. (1999) Toward a 24 Hour Economy. Science 284: 177 9.
- Roehling, P. V., Moen, P., & Blatt, R. (2003) Spillover. In: Moen, P. (Ed.), It’s About Time: Couples and Careers. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, pp. 101 21.
- US Census Bureau (2000) Occupations: 2000.
- US Census Bureau (2002) Fertility of American Women: June 2002.
- White, L. (1999) Sure, I’d Like to Get Married. Someday. In: Booth, A., Crouter, A. C., & Shanahan, M. J. (Eds.), Transitions to Adulthood in a Changing Economy: No Work, No Family, No Future? Praeger, Westport, pp. 56 65.