What once began in the pursuit of equality has completely strayed from the purpose it was meant to serve - the feminist movement has definitely achieved remarkable milestones for securing women's rights and access to education. But looking back and examining the impact of feminism on our society makes it very clear that somewhere along the line, things got out of hand.
Feminism, in its purest form, was a call for equality - a fight for rights, for education, for representation. It was a rebellion against centuries of women feeling like they had been left on the sidelines. But like all rebellions, the pendulum of change swung a little too far, and we are now finding ourselves questioning whether some inherent roles and responsibilities, those traditionally associated with womanhood, have been neglected, and at what cost?
The Female workforce participation had been charted at a mere 34% in the 1950s to almost 77% today. But this is not a straightforward narrative of progress and liberation; it is a tale imbued with unexpected twists and consequences, primarily in the sphere of economics.
Consider this - in the pleasant days of the 1950s, a single-income household was the norm. A man worked, and his salary sufficed to buy a home, support a family, and ensure a comfortable lifestyle. Fast forward to today, and the picture has drastically changed. A single income barely keeps the wolf from the door, let alone allowing for a purchase of a home or promise of a stable future.
It's important to ground these observations in hard facts. Let's take the cost of housing. In the 1950s, the median home price was around $7,400. Adjusting for inflation, that's roughly $93,148 in today's dollars. Compare that to the median home price today, which hovers around $371,200 - a pretty big leap and far outpacing inflation. And this is after a 0.2% decrease hit in the first quarter of 2023.
And this tale remains the same across all sectors, from healthcare to education to everyday goods and services. The cost of living has skyrocketed, while wages, even with two incomes, are struggling to keep up.
Let me be clear - this is not just an indictment of feminism. The movement has done a fair bit to ensure equal rights and opportunities for women. But the impacts it has brought about is one of the factors that have contributed to our current economic reality, and still, it's a factor that is seldom addressed when people discuss the escalating cost of living.
The Rise of Women in the Workforce: How has gender equality inadvertently contributed to an economic shift that has increased the cost of living and contributed to the decline of the middle class?
The cultural fabric of America began to undergo a significant shift in the early-20th century, a time that marked a turning point for women and their role in society.
The first wave of feminism, cresting in the late 19th to early 20th century, was a call for legal rights, primarily focusing on suffrage. Women shared a sense of purpose, rallied against the societal limitations of the time, ultimately earning the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. This was a pivotal triumph, but it was merely the opening salvo in a long-drawn-out struggle.
The second wave, gaining momentum in the 1960s and continuing into the 1980s, sought to challenge deeper, more ingrained societal inequalities. At its core, it preached the radical notion that the personal is political. What does that mean? Well, this wave addressed diverse issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, marital rape, and workplace discrimination. It was during this era that the term 'Women's Liberation' was coined, a phrase that encapsulated the movement's essence - the liberation of women from societal and cultural shackles.
But it was in the fervor for liberation and equal rights where the second wave began sowing the seeds of discord within the movement. Some began to argue that things were going too far in the name of equality, pushing women into the workforce without considering the consequences. This divergence of thought led to tensions within the feminist camp, with some feeling the movement was beginning to lose sight of its original goals.
The third wave, emerging in the mid-1990s, sought to rectify the consequences by embracing diversity and redefining what it meant to be a feminist. It was more and more about acknowledging women's experiences and identities, which were multifaceted, influenced by factors such as race, class, and sexual orientation. But the third wave lacked focus or even clear objectives, which just makes it seem like the movement was increasingly losing its way.
As mentioned earlier, the 1950s saw a small portion of women in the workforce, a number primarily of unmarried women, women of lower classes and widows. Fast forward to today, and that number has tripled, with a high percentage of women contributing to the economy.
This change has not been swift nor easy. It involved a challenging of deeply ingrained norms, undoing the very foundations of what a woman was, a wife, a mother, a daughter. Women wanted to be seen as more than just homemakers, to be recognized as individuals capable of contributing beyond the walls of their homes.
In the 1950s the man was the breadwinner, and went out into the world to earn, while the middle-class woman, the homemaker, nurtured the family and the home. This was a time when the idea of a woman in the workforce was an exception rather than the norm.
The decades that followed saw a major shift. Women, previously in charge of their homes, began entering the workforce in droves. This was not an incidental shift but a result of a deliberate and sustained movement - feminism (specifically, the second wave). What started as a call for rights and representation had just turned into a sweeping destruction of societal norms. A narrative began to emerge, subtly yet insistently, suggesting that the realm of a home was somehow lesser, that true fulfillment and equality lay in the public sphere, in the act of doing what men did.
This shift did not occur in isolation. Theories suggested that this was a systematic endeavor to broaden the tax base. They point to the undeniable economic implications of this shift. Think about it, as more women entered the workforce, the number of earners per household doubled. This action, while being in the name of liberation for women, also led to unforeseen economic consequences.
A quick search shows that women entering the workforce lowers wages.
I found that a 10 percentage-point increase in the female fraction within an occupation leads to an 8 percent decrease in average male wage and a 7 percent decrease in average female wage in the concurrent census year, and a 9 percent decrease in male wages and a 14 percent decrease in female wages over 10 years.
The easiest way to understand this is perfectly summed up by this reddit post I found below:
And to humor her for a second, I think it makes perfect sense. As the number of dual-income households increased, so did the market's response. The cost of living, including housing, education, and healthcare, rose dramatically. I shared the comparison for the housing sector.
But to really prove a point of pattern, let’s also look at education in 1950 vs now. Based on this data, the average cost of tuition, room, and board for a four-year public university in the late 1950s was approximately $600. Adjusted for inflation, this would be approximately $7,600 in 2023 dollars. The current cost of attending a public university is substantially higher.
According to College Board data, the average cost of attendance (basically means tuition, room, and board for a four-year public university) for the 2022-2023 academic year for a public, four-year, in-state institution was about $25,707. As I said earlier, this is a pretty dramatic increase from what it used to cost to attend a public university in the 1950s, and this is after adjusting for inflation.
And just to make an even more solid case. In 1950, healthcare spending per capita was around $84. Adjusting for inflation, this would be equivalent to approximately $1,058 in 2023 dollars. But surprise, surprise, according to a report, the healthcare spending per capita for 2022 (most updated statistic I could find) is about $12,914, which is one again a significant increase from the 1950 figure.
It seems to me that the market has very well adjusted to this new economic reality, setting prices based on the assumption of two incomes per household, pretty much eroding the economic gains made by women joining the workforce. In essence, the promise of financial independence and security that drew women into the workforce is ringing hollow.
Feminism, in its quest for equal rights and opportunities, had unwittingly played a part in this economic conundrum. The narrative of "we can also do this" gradually morphed into "we do not need a man to do it.”
And here’s the thing as women increasingly asserted their independence, it expanded the consumer base and, in turn, impacted the economy. What do I mean?
Consider the example of the housing market. Traditionally, a man and a woman would marry, set up a household, and purchase a home - a singular demand on the housing market. But with women embracing their autonomy, the norm has shifted. Many choose to live alone or with roommates, leading to the need for two houses instead of one. This ends up doubling the demand for housing, putting upward pressure on home prices due to increased competition.
Same thing applies to the car industry. Once upon a time, a family may have purchased one car, primarily used by the man of the house. But with women entering the workforce in droves, the need for individual mobility skyrocketed. Today, it's not uncommon for a household to have two cars, if not more. As demand multiplied, so did the prices, driven by the economic principle of supply and demand.
The same logic applies to a range of other assets - furniture, appliances, even groceries. The more households there are, the more demand there is for these goods. Consequently, increasing prices are driven by the increased consumption.
For example, a study showed that spending on household furnishings and equipment grew from $103.5 billion in 1959 to a staggering $331.3 billion in 2020. This increase is obviously reflective of population growth but also the rising number of households as more women choose to live independently. In 2020 it was found that approximately 23.5 million American women live alone, more than ever before. That's largely because they’re staying single longer because they do not find any value in being married and becoming a wife.
This shift in narrative may sound empowering to some on the surface, but it carries with it an undercurrent of denial of the value of traditionally female roles and tasks. The vital work of nurturing a family and creating a home has become downplayed over the years, even dismissed by most, as women sought to prove their worth in traditionally male domains.
The consequences of this shift are palpable in today's society. The cost of living has escalated far beyond what a single income can support. Childcare costs have soared, with many families finding it cheaper for one parent to stay home than to pay for childcare. But doing so puts an immense stress on families because maintained living standards rely on two incomes, leading to a decline in birth rates, an increase in divorce rates, and a general feeling of discontentedness.
It seems very clear that while the journey of women into the workforce was a triumph in some ways, it also set in motion a series of economic dominoes that have left many families struggling. Especially the families in a class that used to be able to live comfortably but is now being completely eradicated - the middle class.
The "Two-Income Trap”: How has the shift from single to dual-income households led to increased financial instability and erosion of the middle class?
In the middle of the 20th century, the American dream was alive and well. The single-income family, with a breadwinner father and a homemaker mother, was the norm, and this arrangement provided a comfortable, secure lifestyle for many. And then the economic landscape completely shifted over the past seven decades, and the dual-income household became increasingly common.
Elizabeth Warren, in her book, "The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke," draws attention to this transformation and its implications.
Warren shares that two-income families are actually less financially secure than their single-income counterparts from the 1950s. Two-income families are more likely to file for bankruptcy, more likely to lose their homes, and more likely to have crushing loads of debt. In essence, the middle-class dream has become a precarious balancing act on the edge of financial ruin.
To understand the basis of Warren's argument, I think we need to compare the financial realities of the 1950s with those of the 2020s.
- Income Growth: According to the Pew Research Center, in the past 40 years, the average real hourly wage in the U.S (in 2018 dollars) has risen from $4.03 in 1964 to $22.65 in 20181. In contrast, during the same period, household expenditures have risen even faster. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual expenditures by consumer units (similar to households) increased from $20,291 in 1984 to $61,224 in 2019. This is a threefold increase.
P.S. It's important to note that these figures have been adjusted for inflation.
- Consumer Debt: In 1950, household debt was about 20% of the U.S GDP. By the end of 2023, household debt is expected to have risen to nearly 89.7% of the GDP.
To break into layman's terms, high consumer debt is bad because it leads to financial instability for individuals and families. When a large portion of income is dedicated only to debt repayment, there's less money available for essential expenses, savings, or investments. This makes households more vulnerable to unexpected financial challenges, like job loss or medical emergencies. And also, high levels of consumer debt potentially contribute to economic recessions if many people end up defaulting on their loans simultaneously.
- Bankruptcy: The number of bankruptcy filings in 1950 was approximately 18,500. And the most recent statistic is for the calendar year of 2022 where there were 387,721 bankruptcy filings. Don’t feel bad though, this was actually after it dropped by 6.3% from 2021. Great cause for celebration.
Why’re these bad? Well, bankruptcy filings indicate financial instability, deterring investment and slowing economic growth. Filing for bankruptcy often means dealing with the loss of assets and lower credit scores. It takes years to recover financially and emotionally, and the effects can cascade, impacting housing options, employment opportunities, and even future borrowing costs.
- Childcare Costs: In many states, the cost of childcare exceeds the cost of in-state college tuition. The average annual cost of daycare for infants was over $12,300 in 2020. Reminder: Average in-state college tuition is $9,377.
The high cost of childcare ends up placing a significant financial burden on families, often making it one of the largest household expenses. When childcare costs exceed in-state college tuition, families end up forced to choose between providing quality care for their children or other financial necessities or goals, such as housing, healthcare, savings, or maybe even higher education. This strain ends up leading to increased debt and financial insecurity, or discourages families from having children, which has even more broader societal implications.
I think I’ve scared you enough with the numbers. These statistics very clearly demonstrate the financial pressure that has been placed on households over the past couple decades. The necessity for two incomes to sustain the middle-class lifestyle has not only resulted in financial instability but also has led to the gradual erosion of the middle class, as highlighted by Warren. The "two-income trap," as Warren names it, has made households vulnerable to any form of financial disruption.
The rise of the two-income family was ostensibly a sign of societal “progress,” but as Warren's analysis reveals, it has come with unforeseen consequences. Her work underscores the urgent need to reassess and reconfigure our economic structures to safeguard the financial health of the middle class.
Upending the American Dream: How has the surge in consumer demand led to an economic shift that has fundamentally altered the American Dream, redefined our societal values, and impacted the decision to raise a family?
The latter half of the 20th century has been a paradigm shift in America's socio-economic fabric, one that has bore profound repercussions for market dynamics and consumer landscapes. The influx of women that are entering the workforce every year, inadvertently provided fertile grounds for economic shifts that would reshape the quintessential American Dream.
Larger disposable incomes opened the gates to a surge in consumer demand, and markets responded in kind. In theory, maybe in some world, two incomes would mean more financial freedom, maybe even more purchasing power. But, in practice, this evolution instigated a spiral of price inflation that rapidly outpaced wage growth. The cost of essentials skyrocketed. The market, seeing the potential for increased revenue in households with dual incomes, capitalized on this shift.
In the mid-20th century, owning a home was not only attainable but was a part of the American Dream. A family could afford a comfortable home on a single income, often with room to spare for savings and discretionary spending. Today, home prices have spiralled out of reach for many, requiring two incomes merely to foot the mortgage, let alone save or invest. The dream of homeownership has become a daunting, insurmountable challenge for many families, even with two incomes.
But it's not just the numbers that tell the tale. It's the transformation of the American Dream itself. Once, the dream was a home with a white picket fence, a secure job, and a comfortable life for the children – all within reach of the average American man working a 40-hour week. The Dream was about stability, security, and a fair shot at prosperity.
Now, the dream is much more distorted and elusive. The white picket fence has been replaced by the crushing weight of a mortgage. The secure job, by the precarious balance of two careers. The comfortable life for the children, by the looming spectre of exorbitant education costs. And all the while, the hours we work continue to creep up, infringing on the precious time we want to be able to have for family, for leisure, for life beyond the hustle.
It sometimes feels like we’re running on a treadmill that's only speeding up, chasing a dream that's drifting further and further away. The promise of what dual incomes could have done has been soured by the harsh realities of inflated costs, diminished purchasing power, and an elusive dream.
This dissolution of the American Dream is not just about economics. It's about the soul of a nation, the values that are held dear. It's about the promise we make to each generation – that they will have the opportunity to do better, to live better, than the one before. That is, if people even choose to have children anymore.
Social Ramifications: How has the massive influx of women into the workforce and the consequent shift from single to dual-income households reshaped family dynamics, societal roles, and our perceptions of success, and what are the implications on parenthood, marital relationships, and child development?
The entrance of women into the workforce en masse has catalyzed and completely reshaped the dynamics of a family. The transition from single to dual-income households has far-reaching implications on family life, child-rearing, marital relationships, and societal roles.
Do you know how many videos I see a week of people that are living a life with double income and no kids? And while everyone has the right to choose, most of them are doing so simply because they do not want to have kids and weaken their financial standing.
According to a report, the average cost of raising a child until the age of 17 for a middle-income family in the U.S. is about $233,610, and this number can be significantly higher in urban areas or for families with higher incomes.
We are led to believe that the ultimate markers of success are material possessions, travel, and high-end experiences. It's a narrative that is continuously amplified through media (see tiktok above) and our own consumerist culture. But nobody realizes that the tradeoff involves sacrificing the joys of parenthood.
Think about it. These things, these experiences you are using as a reason to not have kids will deteriorate or fade with you. A child will live on to tell your story, they will be left to remember you and keep the idea of you alive even after you are long gone.
Many couples find themselves having to choose between the joys of motherhood and fatherhood, and the need to maintain a lifestyle that we've been conditioned to perceive as desirable. This choice isn't just about the high cost of raising children, but about the pressure to sustain a lifestyle filled with the latest gadgets, lavish vacations, and fine dining experiences - things that are often marketed as symbols of success.
It was also reported that the fertility rate in the United States had been on a steady decline, reaching a record low of 1.73 children per woman in 2018. This is significantly lower than the replacement level fertility rate of 2.1, which is the number of children each woman needs to have to maintain the current population level.
And the thing is, the stress from having a job has contributed to the decline in fertility. Women who reported high levels of work-related stress were significantly less likely to conceive. Specifically, women who reported that their job was "sometimes, often, or always stressful" were 15% less likely to conceive within a year compared to those who reported "rarely or never" experiencing job stress.
The effect on child-rearing is perhaps one of the most conspicuous. With both parents working, families also face the increasing challenge of balancing work and childcare. In 1965, mothers spent an average of 10 hours a week on paid work; today, that number is about 25 hours. This rise in working hours has inevitably affected the time available for childcare and domestic work. And while fathers have nearly tripled their time with children, it hasn't fully compensated for the shift.
And if a couple chooses to have a child and both partners are working. It leads to a change in family structure and an increased reliance on external childcare which has sparked debate about its potential impact on child development.
A well-known study found that children who spend long hours in childcare may experience more stress and are at risk of developing aggressive behavior. The study also found that children who spent more than 30 hours a week in a childcare setting were three times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems in kindergarten as those who spent less time in childcare.
Dual-income households tend to lead to heightened stress and complexity in marital relationships. Balancing work and family commitments often feels like a "second shift" of domestic work after the workday, adding to stress and sometimes even conflict.
Interestingly, research indicates a mixed bag of effects on marriage stability. Some studies find that couples in which both partners work are more likely to divorce, while others suggest that dual-earner couples have a lower divorce risk. The nuances of these findings highlight the complexity of the issue and the myriad factors at play.
Even the traditional concept of 'home life' and gender roles has evolved. And in my opinion, it’s not for the better. As women stepped into the workforce, they also stepped away from some traditional domestic roles. While this shift may have been empowering for some women, it has also sparked discourse about the perceived neglect of roles like a mother or wife and the value society places on them.
Exercise Your Choice: What can we do to alleviate the economic challenges of the two-income trap, allowing families to enjoy greater choice, flexibility, and well-being without compromising their financial stability?
I have come up with some solutions to the economic challenges posed by the two-income trap. These solutions will create an environment where families have more choice and flexibility without compromising the economic well-being of households. Here are a few policy proposals:
- Tax Reform: Implementing tax policies that alleviate the financial burden on families can be a crucial step. This can include measures such as expanding tax credits for families with children, increasing the child tax credit, and reducing the overall tax burden on middle-class families. By reducing the tax burden, families will retain more of their income to cover essential expenses and invest in their future.
- Education and Skills Development: Investing in education and skills development programs can empower individuals, particularly women, to pursue diverse career paths and achieve financial stability. This can include promoting vocational training, apprenticeships, and entrepreneurship initiatives that provide opportunities for individuals to acquire marketable skills and explore flexible work options. Emphasis on “flexible work options.”
- Family-Friendly Workplace Policies: Encouraging family-friendly workplace policies can help strike a balance between work and family responsibilities. This can include promoting open work arrangements, telecommuting options, and providing realistic parental leave policies. This will help people manage their work and family commitments and these policies will help alleviate the pressures of the two-income trap.
- Financial Literacy and Planning: Emphasizing financial literacy and planning from an early age will help equip individuals with the knowledge and skills to make sound financial decisions. This can mean incorporating personal finance education in school curricula or offering financial planning resources to families. By promoting financial responsibility and long-term planning, individuals will be able to navigate the complexities of the modern economy more effectively.
- Promoting Marriage and Family Stability: Encouraging strong marriages and stable family structures can contribute to economic stability. Policies that support marriage education programs, relationship counseling, and initiatives aimed at reducing divorce rates can help mitigate the financial challenges faced by families.
In navigating this web, we might feel like we are stuck in a predicament. The pressures of modern life can get very overwhelming. But you have the power to redefine our measures of success, to question the narratives you’ve been fed, and to make choices that align with our deepest values and desires.
Maybe we need to reevaluate our collective priorities and reconsider what we value most in our lives. Maybe it's not the new car, the latest iPhone, or the exotic vacation, but the simple, profound joy of nurturing a new life, the delight of a child's laughter, the warmth of a family dinner. In the words of Elizabeth Warren,
"We need to rethink our economic rules, our social rules, how we teach our kids, what we say about work."
I think we need to return to a society where nobody has to trade profound joys merely to fit into a mold of success. Because, at the end of the day, the warmth of a child's smile, the comfort of a loving family, the care of a happy wife - these are the things that truly enrich our lives.