Many of us think of "traditional" gender roles as being like a 1950s sitcom: Dad puts on his suit and heads to the office, while Mom, in her pearls and crisp housedress, stays home and keeps house. But that scenario was just an aberration. For most of human history, it has taken the efforts of both men and women, whether working in the marketplace or in the fields, to keep the family afloat. And that's the situation to which we seem to be returning.
By 2050, women will make up 47 percent of the workforce in the United States -- up from 30 percent in 1950 [source: BLS]. But some experts are predicting that, at least in the short term, the number of women in the workforce may surpass the number of men. What's the reason? During the economic recession that began in 2008, many jobs disappeared from industries traditionally dominated by male workers, such as manufacturing. Unless many more manual labor and manufacturing jobs appear, it may be that women, who traditionally work in health care, education and other service industries, will take the lead in the American labor market.
If more women are working, does that mean more men are busy taking care of the house and the children? Not necessarily. It seems that women are performing both roles. A survey reported by The New York Times in 2009 noted that women who lose their jobs spend more time with their children, but the time spent on child care is virtually unchanged for men. The survey did show that in families where both parents worked, the time women spent on childcare and household duties dropped, suggesting that much of the work is outsourced [source: Rampell].
Many of the traditional behaviors expected of men are also becoming less emphasized in some modern cultures. For example, an increased willingness to share feelings and express fears and concerns may be one way men's behaviors have changed. While counselors say women have never hesitated in sharing the emotional aspect of joblessness, traditionally, men's groups have focused on networking and the job search. But that seems to be changing. New support groups are helping long-term unemployed males explore their feelings about their situations.
Throughout history, men have been tasked with providing for the family. In our earliest days as a species with a plan for the day, that meant hunting and bringing home meat for sustenance, while in recent times it's meant earning a paycheck and bringing home the bacon. Women, on the other hand, took care of children and housekeeping. Men worked outside the home; women were expected to stay within the home. However, thanks to cultural movements such as second-wave feminism, it's now considered more acceptable for women to have a career. To a lesser extent, some men have admitted that they don't want a career and would rather stay home with their children, or at least would not feel uncomfortable doing so. There are, simply, more "Mr. Moms" than there used to be. Such changes have allowed for greater egalitarianism within marriage. However, though gender roles are changing, men and women still don't have identical positions. Women often earn less than men for the same amount of work, as shown in a 2007 study that found that women earn less than men right out of college, and that the gap widens as their careers progress [source: Business Week]. Meanwhile, higher pay still in hand, men also continue to hold onto the most visible leadership roles in society.
Given that times have changed, and men and women's roles are less stringently defined, is one gender any happier than the other as a result? Many surveys and research projects have attempted to ascertain whether men or women are happier. According to a 2003 study that involved people from 44 countries, women were happier than men. The researchers attributed the gap to women's tendency to focus on personal problems, compared to men's tendency to focus on financial success and world issues, or matters outside the home. (In 2003, many countries were battling an economic downturn, which may have accounted for the men's unhappiness. This theory held up when researchers surveyed happiness levels after the most recent recession in 2008.) However, a U.S. study found that at the age of 48, men's happiness surpasses women's, possibly because by that age they've experienced a certain level of career success that might elude women.
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