The gender gap=a “happiness gap”?

Last week’s New York Times article on two studies investigating the relationship between activities (“time use”) and happiness, and the differences between men and women regarding that correspondence, has stirred up quite a blog response. Here’s mine, with a look at some of the others.

The original article by David Leonhardt notes that research shows…

…(T)here appears to be a growing happiness gap between men and women.

Two new research papers, using very different methods, have both come to this conclusion. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, economists at the University of Pennsylvania (and a couple), have looked at the traditional happiness data, in which people are simply asked how satisfied they are with their overall lives. In the early 1970s, women reported being slightly happier than men. Today, the two have switched places.

Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist working with four psychologists on the time-use research team, analyzing time-use studies over the last four decades, has found an even starker pattern. Since the 1960s, men have gradually cut back on activities they find unpleasant. They now work less and relax more.

Over the same span, women have replaced housework with paid work — and, as a result, are spending almost as much time doing things they don’t enjoy as in the past. Forty years ago, a typical woman spent about 23 hours a week in an activity considered unpleasant, or 40 more minutes than a typical man. Today, with men working less, the gap is 90 minutes.

These trends are reminiscent of the idea of “the second shift,” the name of a 1989 book by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, arguing that modern women effectively had to hold down two jobs. The first shift was at the office, and the second at home.

But researchers who have looked at time-use data say the second-shift theory misses an important detail. Women are not actually working more than they were 30 or 40 years ago. They are instead doing different kinds of work. They’re spending more time on paid work and less on cleaning and cooking.

What has changed — and what seems to be the most likely explanation for the happiness trends — is that women now have a much longer to-do list than they once did (including helping their aging parents). They can’t possibly get it all done, and many end up feeling as if they are somehow falling short.

The two new papers — Mr. Krueger’s will be published in the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity and the Stevenson-Wolfers one is still in draft form — are part of a burst of happiness research in recent years. There is no question that the research has its limitations. Happiness, of course, is highly subjective.

A big reason that women reported being happier three decades ago — despite far more discrimination — is probably that they had narrower ambitions, Ms. Stevenson says. Many compared themselves only to other women, rather than to men as well. This doesn’t mean they were better off back then.

But it does show just how incomplete the gender revolution has been. Although women have flooded into the work force, American society hasn’t fully come to grips with the change. The United States still doesn’t have universal preschool, and, in contrast to other industrialized countries, there is no guaranteed paid leave for new parents.

Government policy isn’t the only problem, either. Inside of families, men still haven’t figured out how to shoulder their fair share of the household burden. Instead, we’re spending more time on the phone and in front of the television.

As the article notes, women may have had narrower ambitions a few decades ago, but they also had narrower opportunities available. One of the things that always strikes me as a significant difference between women today who make the choice – which is now what it is – to be stay-at-home mothers, and the stay-at-home mothers many of us remember from our own growing-up years -when it was still mostly the societal norm – is that when we were kids, our stay-at-home mothers were at home doing housework, and not focusing their time and attention nearly as much on us kids. To clarify, I don’t mean we were being ignored; we were just left to be kids, and our parents were less invested in structuring our lives. The technology of housekeeping has made it a lot less “work” than it was for earlier generations, and yet getting it done remains an issue, between the “second shift” discussed here for women working outside the home and the “professional parenting” of women who aren’t. And we know that the stress of being pulled in so many directions at once isn’t particularly conducive to happiness.

Bloggers have had varying responses to the story. At Career and Kids, Elizabeth disagrees with the implication that “men are leaving the burden of the work to women while they relax.” and wisely reminds us that “Happiness is your own responsibility whether you are a man or a woman.”

Karen Burns, Working Girl, honed in on one of the more surprising premises of the article – that one of the sources of stress, and hence unhappiness, for women is the time they spend responding to the pressure to keep themselves physically attractive:

…Seems that women are not only still slaves to the so-called second shift (putting in another stint of work at home after having worked all day on the job), we also spend significant time and worry–at least younger women do–on beinghotties.

Hey, it takes precious hours to flat-iron hair, get eyeliner on straight, and update wardrobes to reflect that brown is the new black.

Broadsheet was all over this angle as well:

Dubbed as “the hottie theory” by one of the researchers, the phrase is borrowed from a recent New York Times story about a bunch of impressively academic and athletic high school girls who still feel the need to be “effortlessly hot.” Sheesh.

Talk about contemplating the globe through the lens of your New York Times trend-spotting navel! What about the 40-something who makes 20 percent less than the dude in the cubicle next to her? Is effortless hotness weighing on her mind? Or the 65-year-old widow who can’t figure out when she’ll ever retire now that her Social Security benefits have been slashed? Is she unhappy because she’s no longer sizzlin’?

In the same post, Carol Lloyd summed things up as follows (emphasis added by me):

The article ends up conceding that larger issues than hotness may be bringing women down — that working women still do most of the child rearing and housekeeping and that without government-sponsored daycare or maternal leave, women must risk their careers to have children. Here’s a couple the article didn’t mention: how about global warming, senseless war and, on a less altruistic front, the wage gap?

As the burgeoning field of positive psychology has shown, studying happiness is a complex and sometimes contradictory matter. Some research has suggested that a relative sense of wealth (or lack of it) has a greater effect on happiness than absolute wealth. In other words, now that women are in the workplace in greater numbers, their awareness that they are making less is a drag on their psyches. Other happiness research, also by Krueger, points to a very different interpretation. People are not happy or sad based on their income but on the quality of their daily lives. Thus, maybe women are becoming less happy relative to men because more are working in the same way men typically have: engaging in goal-oriented but unfulfilling labor in exchange for time.

Diane Danielson on the DWC Women’s Dish blog took a look at the big picture expressed by both this report and recent findings about younger working women who are out-earning their male peers, seeing yet another possible “happiness gap” between single and married women (emphasis added by me):

I found the following stories from the New York Times both interesting when read separately, but a bit disturbing when read together as they paint a grim picture of what “dating/marriage means for working women.”

The first article focused on the trials and tribulations of dating men when you outearn them. I’m actually used to hearing this from my Gen X and Boomer colleagues, but following up on studies where 20-something women are outearning their male peers in major cities like New York, it’s clear that it’s affecting the younger set now.

And as far as the relative happiness of women vs. men, Diane suggests “that this happiness gap might be true for married couples, but not so true for singles.”

Yet, despite the fact that we may do less housework than our mothers, many of us are still attempt to do housework in the same manner as our mothers did (albeit after a 40+ week at the office and participating in constant one-on-one interaction with children; neither of which was required by many of our mothers). (I made this point earlier in this post, but I’m glad to see someone else on the same train.) At the same time, the traditional “men’s housework,” i.e. washing the car, caring for the yard, painting the house, are all outsourced (even grilling is done by the flick of a button now).

So, what’s the message here? Men don’t like women who outearn them; yet, are happier when married because they get to offload housework. Not sure what to think of that except it’s going to be a rocky road for gender relations until everyone starts to adjust to changing gender roles.

In a post that’s not directly in response to the “happiness gap” report, but seems somehow related to me, Peggy Andrews at the Career Encouragement Blog highlights a discussion on the frustrations of combining work and family (emphasis added by me):

(I)t seems to me that those in “my generation” (the “Generation Jones” group bridging the Boomers and Gen-X’ers) experienced a “mid-life” crisis in our early 30’s when we were having our children and trying to figure out the work-life game.

Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling do a great job of exposing why the traditional career path just doesn’t make sense for many of us in The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream. The authors deftly articulate how the convergence of family growth and career growth during our 30-something years is at odds with social structure in the United States. They note that:

“What is key is that both the breadwinner/homemaker gender divide (of paid work and unpaid family care work) and the life course as a three-part sequential age divide (education, employment, and retirement) are social inventions, products of industrialization, urbanization, suburbanization, and bureaucratization. They have become a taken-for-granted part of the landscape of American culture, shaping the institutions that sustain the American way of life.”

From an individual perspective, it is easy to feel guilty or frustrated when it seems like it’s impossible to fit work and family neatly into one lifetime. This book does a great job of normalizing those frustrations. Who wouldn’t feel stressed trying to orchestrate a two-worker household in a society that is set up on the assumption that someone is always home (think school schedules, service providers, doctors office hours, etc.)? The artificial gender and age divides super-imposed on our society affect our reactions without us being aware of it most of the time.

On the official blog for Work It, Mom!, Nataly Kogan looks at the “happiness gap” and wonders, “Has feminism failed to make women happier?”

The answer would seem to be yes…

I am lucky to have a husband who is very involved as a dad, does not work crazy hours, and helps out a lot at home. But I still shoulder most of the responsibility for managing our home, taking care of our daughter, and making key decisions. I’ve also always been the main breadwinner, and while I like to work and I am extremely proud of my career achievements, the pressure I feel to take care of us financially definitely takes a toll on my happiness sometimes.

Add to this the fact that despite the fact that I’ve always worked had and been the main breadwinner I still harbor the ideals of what a great mom should be; you’ll find me in the kitchen at midnight making banana bread from scratch for my daughter because I think that’s what I should be doing. The to-do list is long, the responsibilities are many, and the stress level is high.

I don’t really agree with Nataly that this struggle is a failure of feminism, but I think she raises a good question. I think that feminism has opened up many more opportunities for women, and I think that’s raised the expectations for happiness. As another commenter toNataly’s post pointed out, these opportunities, and their related responsibilities, have changed women’s lives – and men’s too, but not as quickly or dramatically. However, we still have to choose from among those opportunities, and sometimes having all those choices is more a source of stress than happiness, as I said earlier in this post. The Superwoman, “have-it-all” myth fed the idea that maybe we didn’t have to make these choices and decisions among the various opportunities – but we do, and we’re still trying to sift through the fallout. I think feminism may have failed in making it clear that we really can’t have it all, all at once, all the time – but I think people are responsible for their own happiness.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,358 other subscribers

6 comments

  1. Wow, this is fascinating, Florinda. What a great round-up.

    And I think you really put your finger on it when you said that our “new” unhappiness may well be due to raised expectations. Didn’t people in general used to be more fatalistic, more willing to settle?

    I think so. I’m not sure why the change. Maybe we just know more now. We travel more, are exposed to different lifestyles via the media, read more, change cities (even countries) more–our lives are BIGGER than they uesd to be.

    This is wonderful in many ways, but it can be stress-producing, too. When I used to live in France my life was much smaller. Part of it was I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on around me! And I didn’t read a lot of news, and knew only a few people. It was pre-Internet, international phone calls were expensive–Europe was farther away then! I lived in a little peaceful bubble.

    When I moved back to the States I was overwhelmed. It took me a long time to adjust.

    Anyway, my point is that knowledge, our global village, our new “knowingness” can also be a cadeau empoisoné, as my French landlord used to say. A poisoned gift.

  2. Bobita at Blooming Yaya just wrote a post in equation format, showing how much more she’s contributing in time and money to her family than her husband, and how much less she gets back in terms of leisure and free time. The end of the equation was that unfair burden of work + unfair division of free time = Welbutrin.

    I was in that kind of marriage one (before kids) and the anger alone is enough to drain away most of your happiness.

    I would love to know how to prevent and/or cure that kind of male selfishness. Not all men are like that (now-husband certainly isn’t) – so how come so many are?

  3. (Here’s a link to Bobita’s post that Bub and Pie mentioned.)

    Working Girl – Karen, your “poisoned gift” is a loss of innocence. I think you’re on to something – knowing more about the world can cause us to want more, and to expect more, which feeds unhappiness if those wants aren’t met.

    Bub and Pie – I suspect it will take generations of re-training to phase out that sort of male selfishness. As you mention, there’s been some progress – your present husband, and mine as well – but we may need to focus our efforts on the next generation.

    Laura – Hello and welcome! Did you know this is officially “Delurking Day”? Thanks for playing!

  4. Thanks for grouping all those insights together. Ironically, before all these studies came out, Nataly Kogan and I had discussed the prospect of doing a “happiness” survey. (Small world, huh?)

    I have a pet theory (based on my own anecdotal evidence) that single working women (moms or not) and stay at home moms are both happier than their married working colleagues. Part of the reason is that we have the time to stay connected to our friends. (I started to notice this summer that as a single working mom, all my friends were either stay at home moms or single, because the married ones were too busy to stay in touch).

    And while depression is generally higher for single moms, it’s recently been found that this is only for those single moms divorced later in life who may have been forced back into the workforce while still caring for children (and having trouble adjusting to a downgraded lifestyle).

    On a final point, there was another study in 2003 about the “6:00 crush” that happens for married working women – faced with getting dinner on the table and homework done after a long day of work. For single moms, like myself, this doesn’t happen, because if we’re lucky, we occasionally get a night off as our children’s father might take them; or even if they don’t, we can always have cereal for dinner and not worry about what anyone thinks! Speaking of cereal … where did I put those Wheaties?

    Diane Danielson
    ceo, Downtown Women’s Club

  5. Diane – Interesting point. I agree that there are certain stresses that single moms don’t have, and that might make them happier, as you also mentioned in your original post about this. And now that you mention it, most of my friends in real life (as opposed to online) are either single or stay-at-home moms – I hadn’t really thought about that before.