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Now the recession raises the stakes and shuffles the deck. Poll after poll finds women even more anxious than men about their family's financial security. While most workers have seen their wages stall or drop, women's earnings fell 2% in 2008, twice as much as men's. Women are 32% more likely than men to have subprime mortgages, leaving them more vulnerable in the housing crisis. The Guttmacher Institute found that the downturn has affected the most basic decisions in family life. Nearly half of women surveyed in households earning less than $75,000 want to delay pregnancy or limit the number of children they have. At the same time, women are poised to emerge from the downturn with even greater relative economic power as the wage gap narrows. A new survey by GfK Roper for NBC Universal gives a whole new meaning to the power of the purse: 65% of women reported being their family's chief financial planner, and 71% called themselves the family accountant. According to a Mediamark Research & Intelligence survey, they make 75% of the buying decisions in American homes. Together, women control more wealth than ever in history.
Progress is seldom simple; it comes with costs and casualties, even challenges about whether a change represents an advance or a retreat. The TIME survey provides evidence of both. At the most basic level, the argument over where women belong is over; the battle of the sexes becomes a costume drama, like Middlemarch or Mad Men. Large majorities, across ages and incomes and ideologies, view women's growing role in the workforce as good for both the economy and society in general. More than 8 in 10 say mothers are just as productive at work as fathers or childless workers are. Even more, some 84% affirm that husbands and wives negotiate the rules, relationships and responsibilities more than those of earlier generations did; roughly 7 in 10 men say they are more comfortable than their fathers were with women working outside the home, while women say they are less financially dependent on their spouse than their mother was.
This is not to say there's nothing left to argue about. More than two-thirds of women still think men resent powerful women, yet women are more likely than men to say female bosses are harder to work for than male ones. Men are much more likely to say there are no longer any barriers to female advancement, while a majority of women say men still have it better in life. People are evenly split over whether the "mommy wars" between working and nonworking mothers are finally over.
But just as striking is how much men and women agree on issues that divided them a generation ago. "It happened so fast," writes Gail Collins in her new book, When Everything Changed, "that the revolution seemed to be over before either side could really find its way to the barricades." It's as though sensible people are too busy to bother bickering about who takes out the garbage or who deserves the corner office; many of the deepest conflicts are now ones that men and women share. Especially in the absence of social supports, flexible work arrangements and affordable child care, it's hardly surprising that a majority of both men and women still say it is best for children to have a father working and a mother at home. Among the most dramatic changes in the past generation is the detachment of marriage and motherhood; more men than women identified marriage as "very important" to their happiness. Women no longer view matrimony as a necessary station on the road to financial security or parenthood. The percentage of children born to single women has leaped from 12% to 39%. Whereas a majority of children in the mid-1970s were raised by a stay-at-home parent, the portion is now less than a third, and nearly two-thirds of people say this has been a negative for American society.
Among the most confounding changes of all is the evidence, tracked by numerous surveys, that as women have gained more freedom, more education and more economic power, they have become less happy. No tidy theory explains the trend, notes University of Pennsylvania economist Justin Wolfers, a co-author of The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness. "We looked across all sectors young vs. old, kids or no kids, married or not married, education, no education, working or not working and it stayed the same," he says of the data. "But there are a few ways to look at it," he adds. "As Susan Faludi said, the women's movement wasn't about happiness." It may be that women have become more honest about what ails them. Or that they are now free to wrestle with the same pressures and conflicts that once accounted for greater male unhappiness. Or that modern life in a global economy is simply more stressful for everyone but especially for women, who are working longer hours while playing quarterback at home. "Some of the other social changes that have happened over the last 35 years changes in family, in the workplace may have affected men differently than women," Wolfers says. "So maybe we're not learning about changes due to the women's movement but changes in society."
All the shapes in the puzzle are shifting. If there is anything like consensus on an issue as basic as how we live our lives as men and women, as lovers, parents, partners, it's that getting the pieces of modern life to fit together is hard enough; something has to bend. Equal numbers of men and women report frequent stress in daily life, and most agree that government and businesses have failed to adjust to the changes in the family. As the Old Economy dissolves before our eyes, men and women express remarkably similar life goals when asked about the importance of money, health, jobs and family. If male jobs keep vanishing, if physical strength loses its workplace value, if the premium shifts ever more to education, in which achievement is increasingly female, then we will soon be having parallel conversations: What needs to be done to free American men to realize their full potential? You can imagine the whole conversation flipping in a single generation.
It's no longer a man's world. Nor is it a woman's nation. It's a cooperative, with bylaws under constant negotiation and expectations that profits be equally shared.
With reporting by Andréa Ford and Deirdre van Dyk