When the Money Is Mom’s

On the face of it, the story is one of progress: Nearly 40% of mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners of the household, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

Underneath that headline-grabbing statistic, though, the picture is more complex. It reflects not only the rise of a more educated group of women, but also a growing number of single mothers and the inordinate amount of job loss experienced by men at the start of the Great Recession.

“Some women decided to work more hours or seek better jobs in response to their husbands’ job loss, potential loss or declining wages,” Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland sociologist, tells The Washington Post.

In 1976, when Peter Drucker first started to write about the significance of two-income households in which the wife worked, the landscape was quite different. While half of married women were working, their income was supplementary.

The husband is still considered the breadwinner, and his income is used for normal household expenses,” Drucker observed in The Changing World Of The Executive. “The wife’s income averages about 60% of the husband’s and is used for ‘extras.’ Her money provides the margin for a bigger house, the luxury car, the expensive vacation.”

Image by © Taren Riley/ImageZoo/Corbis
Image by © Taren Riley/ImageZoo/Corbis

Even so, this was already having an effect on business. In Managing in a Time of Great Change, Drucker pointed out that department stores failed to notice that baby boomer women, being employed in office work, had different spending habits from those earlier generations. “Time was the primary factor, and this generation’s women could not afford to spend their time shopping in department stores,” Drucker wrote.

Auto makers also found themselves surprised—such as GM with its 1979 Cadillac Seville. “It was designed by General Motors for the successful professional man who wants luxury,” Drucker noted in Managing in Turbulent Times. “But it was bought largely by women with an income of their own rather than by the professional men for whom it had been designed.”

In any case, Drucker viewed all of this as evidence of rapid, massive, and often disorienting changes in life structures that were underway and would continue. “In the last decades of the 20th Century, population structures will be the least stable and most drastically changing element in economics, society and world politics, and probably the single most important cause of turbulence,” he warned. “The labor force has become heterogeneous; and its fragmentation will continue.”

What do you think are the business implications of such a rising percentage of female breadwinners?