Can Men Survive the Demise of the Bread-Winner Role?

Like many men, my father grew up knowing that he had to be successful as the family breadwinner. Then, as now, it wasn’t always easy to fulfill that crucial role that is at the core of a man’s self-esteem. While his brothers all went into business, my father’s passion was to be an actor. When he was twenty-three years old he left his home in Jacksonville, Florida and hitchhiked to New York to become in search of his dream.

He was successful at first, but the Great Depression soon hit and he found it difficult to find a job. He and my mother got married and they both found part-time work. But when I was born, the gender-roles kicked into place and my mother stayed home to take care of me and my father redoubled his efforts to become an actor, but jobs were few and far between.

We moved to California and he switched careers to writing for the emerging movie and television industries, but he had the bad luck of being black-listed because of his left-wing leanings. His journals at that time showed his gradual slide into depression.

October 10th: “Oh, Christ, if I could only give my son a decent education—a college decree with a love for books, a love for people, good, solid knowledge. No guidance was given to me. I slogged and slobbered and blundered through two-thirds of my life. I can’t make a decent living and it’s killing me.”

December 8th: “Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers, writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work, Yes, it’s enough to make anyone, blanch, turn pale and sicken.”

January 24th: “Faster, faster, faster, I walk. I plug away looking for work, anything to support my family. I try, try, try, try, try. I always try and never stop.”

June 8th: “A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education. I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Yes, on a Wednesday morning in June, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.”

Six days after his June 8th entry, my father took an over-dose of sleeping pills and was committed to Camarillo State Hospital. Back then, there was little real treatment. He was mis-diagnosed as being psychotic, though today he would have been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, but his real problem was basing his male identity on his role as family breadwinner.

When I lost my job a number of years ago, I became depressed and suicidal. I didn’t even like the job and was planning to leave, but was blindsided when the loss of the job made me feel I was worthless as a man. This is a real dilemma for millions of men today. We consider the breadwinner role essential for our sense of manhood, yet the male breadwinner role is in decline and may be on its way out.

A study conducted by the World Bank, which sampled 19 countries throughout the world, concluded:

“The main role for men is one of primary income-earner and breadwinner in the family. In all 19 countries in the study, income generation for the family was the first and most likely mentioned definition of a man’s role in the family and of a good husband.”

Comments from men showed how people felt about this critical male role.

  • “A good husband is a good provider of things such as food, and clothes” (Afghanistan).
  • “A good husband is one who provides for everything in the house. He pays all the bills” (Burkina Faso).
  • “He should go to work in the early morning and get money for his children” (North Sudan)
  • “A husband who is not a good provider has no power at all in his family” (Vietnam).

Throughout most of human history men hunted, literally bringing home the bacon. Now the male role is to have a good-paying job and bring home money to buy the things the family needs. But the world is changing and an increasing number of men are not able to find jobs to support their families. This impacts straight and gay men alike. More women are working and men are falling behind.

The World Bank report notes that “Men feel that their power in society has stagnated over the past 10 years. Partly because of changes in norms and laws but also because of lack of economic progress in their countries or communities, men report little to no power gains during the 10-year period.”

This may be one of the key reasons Donald Trump was elected President. Men were feeling a loss of power because many were out of work or afraid of losing their jobs. They were susceptible to Trump’s argument that workers from Mexico were coming across our borders and taking our jobs or that we were shipping the jobs overseas. Many men, feeling their loss of power, believed that Donald Trump would protect them and bring their jobs back home.

However, that hope is an illusion. Most jobs are not being taken by outsiders, but are being lost because of technology. In a recent article, Bots at Work: Men Will Lose the Most Jobs, award-winning journalist Laurie Penny looks at the real reason more men are out of work and why men’s work may be a thing of the past.

“Robots are coming for our jobs,” she tells us, “but not all of our jobs. They’re coming, in ever increasing numbers, for a certain kind of work. For farm and factory labor. For construction. For haulage. In other words, blue-collar jobs traditionally done by men.”

Technology is eliminating more and more jobs that were the traditional men’s jobs and men must learn to adapt. “This is why automation is so much more than an economic problem,” says Penny. “Millions of men around the world are staring into the lacquered teeth of obsolescence, terrified of losing not only their security but also their source of meaning and dignity in a world that tells them that if they’re not rich, they’d better be doing something quintessentially manly for money.”

So, what’s a man to do? If more and more of us are facing a world where we can’t expect to be doing the kind of work we once did, we will have to find other ways of providing meaning in our lives. Some of us will move into jobs that have been traditionally done by women, including child-care, nursing, and social work. More men will take over the home-making functions, while women continue to take more of the jobs in the workplace.  Still others will find new roles beyond the “breadwinner role.”

Humans are clearly out of balance with the natural world as we continue to see hurricanes that are more and more destructive and wildfires that destroy homes and lives. Psychologist and author Sam Keen suggests that more of us will find roles that involve helping humans get reconnected to the Earth.

“The radical vision of the future rests on the belief that the logic that determines either our survival or our destruction is simple:

  1. The new human vocation is to heal the Earth.
  2. We can only heal what we love.
  3. We can only love what we know.
  4. We can only know what we touch.

There will be millions of new jobs to fill if we are going to leave our children and grandchildren with a world that is truly sustainable. I look forward to your ideas and comments.

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  1. Thomas Harvey says:

    In 2005 I was forced into early retirement after 30 years at Eastman Kodak. My position as a Photographic Systems Analyst became obsolete due to advances digital imaging. Try as I may I could not find a similar job in Rochester NY. Most Rochester companies were suffering the same economic decline. I took many part time jobs such as truck driving, security guard and free lance photographer. Eventually I became a Home Health Aid. It was quite a shock when I saw that my starting pay was 25% of my Kodak pay. During this time my wife’s career prospered. She now makes 10x more than I do. Am I upset? Not at all. Am I less of a man? I don’t think so. The economy we started work in is different than the one we live in now. We will all have to adjust.

    • Thomas,
      Good story. We may have to adjust our concept of “work, success, men’s roles, women’s roles, who is the primary bread winner, etc. But it doesn’t have to undermine or threaten what makes us men.

  2. This is a great article for my current husband. But in the past I have been with men who loved me being the only breadwinner. Now my 47 year old son thinks I should take care of him for the rest of his life. Society has changed and it is ok for a wife to make more than his wife, but to avoid resentments I suggest that the husband do something to help out around the house or play with the kids. As a recovering codependent I need some effort on behalf of my man.

  3. I see this struggle deeply in my partner. After loosing his last job, even though that was in our life plan for him to quit in 6 months and there were tremendous benefits to him loosing the job, he’s fallen into an even deeper depression since. Such a deep depression that he stopped even trying to care for and support his family. It’s been the hardest two years of my life being around him and trying to manage our finances. There are many options for him to earn $$ and support the family, but he is too depressed and angry to pursue them. And the harder I work to sustain the family the more angry and depressed he gets and the more he takes it out on me. It’s a very hard situation for me to be in. Like the person posting above me, it’s hard for me not to resent him for his limited participation in household tasks as well.

    • These aren’t easy issues to deal with as we shift our understanding of the breadwinner role and how much of male identity is wrapped up in it. Thanks very much for your insightful comments and willingness to share your own personal experiences.

  4. A woman asked Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who introduced TM to the world, if he could make women in the movement equal to men. Maharishi said, why would you want that? You are already 10 times better than a man! If men could recognize even a part of that, much of their troubles would be over. The secret to a successful marriage is mutual respect, and that comes from a man realizing that his wife is a goddess. Then all the man has to do is what every person should be doing anyway – finding out what they are uniquely best suited to do in this world, and doing it. Whether it is they who bring in the bread, or their significant other, will not matter nearly as much.
    My basic thesis is that mankind has been screwed for the past 8-10 thousand years by those who obtained power at the start of the agricultural revolution. Our next evolutionary step is to realize that, and to realize who we really are. If we can do that, we may just survive extinction, which as you know from lemmings, comes just after maximum populations.
    We are spiritual beings in a physical world temporarily; we are immortal; we live forever; we have many lives upon this earth, and live in the spirit world between lives. We never die; we just lose our bodies. There is no such thing as sin or hell; they were made up by those determined to keep us down. (see Journey of Souls by Michael Newton). On the map of Consciousness, humanity has just passed 200 for the first time in history; this means that we are out of force and into power and power goes only up! So we have nowhere to go but up! So it is now everyone’s opportunity and responsibility to help others climb out of force to acceptance to courage to reason to love. (see Power vs Force by David R Hawkins MD PhD) Both of these books are in my opinion scientific evidence for what I am talking about. Jed, let me know what you think. And thanks for all that you do to help men feel better about themselves. I don’t seem to have that problem but I bleed for all the men that do.

  5. Larry Potts says:

    Hi Jed, my wife and I have always flipped between bread winner “status” in our 30-years of marriage. I earned more, she earned more, it didn’t matter to either one of us while we were raising our three children. I can’t speak for my wife, but for me, that title “bread winner” was not important as long as we could provide a safe place to raise our kids. She seemed to agree with that and we had talked about it as it flipped from one to another. Who earned more was never an issue in our marriage and if she earned more, I was proud of her. If I earned more, it was normal. What hurt our marriage was un-diagnosed depression. First with her depression (with neither one of us having a clue as to what was happening) to my diagnosis of severe depression (with me not having any of it). My wife started her path to recovery 18-months before me (before I even started to try something different…like medication and therapy) and as she was healing, I managed to do a pretty good job of blowing up our life. Affair, lies, suicidal thoughts, failing at work, loss of job. By the time I started being honest with my therapist, taking my medication regularly, telling the other woman I couldn’t do it anymore, understanding my wife was giving me room to heal and make decisions from a healthy space, I had lost my job…and I was relieved at that point. I was angry and sad at what I had caused for the last 8-months. Oh, and I was unemployed. Oh and the woman that was giving me a safe place to heal and get healthy was supporting me…alone…with two kids in college…two wonderful kids. I can understand how your dad felt. I am very jealous at his amazing writing, but I would not want to feel what he felt and I felt ever again. That understanding of loss will be with me always.

    6-plus years later, Terrie and I have re-built. Well…she allowed me a space to re-build, because, I think, she did herself and wanted to give me the chance to. My wife is the strongest person I will ever meet in my life. She suffered from depression for 10 years. Then watched her husband suffer from it and almost destroy everything she knew and yet, she believed I would heal AND still be the man she fell in love with. That’s the definition of faith. I am very lucky. I still get to spend every day with the girl I fell in love with. She loves me. She trusts me and we are both alive (not just breathing, but living), together, enjoying each day.

    So, after years of experience of me earning more, or my spouse earning more, it doesn’t matter as long as you can talk to each other honestly and communicate the goals you both want for each other, If they differ, negotiate…