We’re all familiar with what sociologists call “the traditional family:” a straight, married couple, with a male breadwinner who works long hours to support his family, while the woman stays home, takes care of the domestic work, and rears the children. Feminists have long campaigned against the factors which ensure that this the only option—for both men and women. Now, it appears that male breadwinners aren’t too happy with it either.
New research has shown that male breadwinners in high-status jobs, such as managerial roles, are more likely to want to cut back their working hours than other men; even if it involves a drop in their salary.
Here, we use the term “male breadwinners” to describe men who earn the majority of a straight couple’s income. We were unable to include same sex couples in our analysis, because limitations in the data restricted our ability to do so.
Using data on about 4,000 men from 12 western European countries, we found that male breadwinners work longer hours than single men, men who are equal earners and men whose female partner is the breadwinner. Of course, this is partly because male breadwinners have a partner who can take care of most of the domestic work, which enables them to stay at work later or start earlier.
Male breadwinners are more likely to feel overworked than other men. We found that the extra responsibilities, which come with high-status roles, contribute to these feelings.
Our study discovered that around 58% of male breadwinners with children would like to work fewer hours, even if it meant taking a pay cut. A similar proportion of male breadwinners without children (57%) felt the same way. So spending too long at work is not just a concern for fathers who want to have more time with their children. It’s possible that reducing working hours is seen as a step in the process of having a family, which starts even before there are any children.
We found that concerns about work-life balance remained significant for those who felt overworked, even when we controlled for many other factors such as whether their firm offered performance pay, and how long they had been employed there.
Of course, part of the story here is that high-status male breadwinners are more comfortable expressing feelings of overwork, because their higher incomes mean they can afford to earn less. Other working men—single men, men who earn the same as their female partner and men whose female partner is the breadwinner—were less likely than male breadwinners to want to work fewer hours. Even so, a high proportion (for example, 40% of equal earning fathers) of these other groups still said they’d like to reduce the time they spent working.
It’s understandable that male breadwinners are more keen than most to reduce their time at work. We know that both working long hours, and working longer than desired, are bad for your health and well being. It also means that you can feel that the job is preventing you from participating in family life and that you are too tired after work to enjoy things.
It’s also worth noting that male breadwinners do not hold more conservative attitudes to women’s participation in the workforce than other men in Europe. This stands in contrast to the findings of previous research in the US.
Many firms tacitly endorse the status quo, by requiring long hours from their employees, without providing any options to reduce working hours for their higher status employees.
Some remedies to long working hours have been put forward, such as giving employees more autonomy at work. But many people who are managers, and responsible for other workers, already have the ability to decide on a daily basis how their work is controlled. The paradox is that when you have more control, you actually end up working longer hours. So having more autonomy at work does not necessarily prevent it from interfering with family life.
And although many companies pay lip-service to the principle of helping women, particularly mothers, to achieve a good work-life balance, many mothers leave work precisely because they are not given adequate support to continue. So, our findings support the case for businesses to recognise the importance of work-life balance as an issue which affects all of their employees; men and women alike.