With women now comprising more than half of the U.S. workforce, it’s perhaps no surprise that another seismic shift is happening in American homes: A growing share of women are now their families’ breadwinners.
About half of women say they out-earn or make the same amount as their husbands or partners, according to a new survey from TD Ameritrade. That marks a rapid change within a few generations, given that only 3.8% of women earned more than their husbands in 1960, according to the Pew Research Center.
To be sure, that means about half of American women say they earn less than their partners. With International Women’s Day observed on March 8, the United Nations says no country has yet achieved gender parity. And the gender pay gap in the U.S. is still very real, with the country coming in at 53rd out of 153 countries in equality.
Yet in a growing number of U.S. households, women are now earning more than their husbands and partners. There are plenty of emotions about this shift – but mostly among women, the TD Ameritrade study found.
When men and women were asked how they felt about earning more than their partners, most men shrugged it off by saying they were “neutral” about it. Women breadwinners, though, were far more likely than men to describe themselves as secure, proud, independent and in control – although they were also more likely to say they felt guilty and embarrassed.
The sense of pride is one that rings true with Beth Shocki, 38, who works in advertising and lives with her husband and two daughters in Charlotte, North Carolina. Shocki says she earns about twice the income of her husband, a high school guidance counselor.
“There are a lot of emotions tied to it because we’re used to society thinking the man is the sole provider,” she says. For her, it didn’t hit home until she and her husband had children when she understood she would never be a stay-at-home mom like her own mother.
“It was that realization that I was the breadwinner and I would always be working,” Shocki adds. But, she points out, it’s also an empowering role that lets her set an example for their daughters, who are 2 and 4.
It’s likely that more women will become their families’ breadwinners in years to come, given that more women are enrolled in college now than men, points out Valiere Simpson, managing director of investor services at TD Ameritrade. That’s because workers with college degrees typically earn more than those with only high school degrees.
Already, there are clear generational shifts, with millennial women almost twice as likely as women in the baby boomer generation to earn the same as their partners, she says. But more than 1 in 5 millennials say they experience negative friction in their relationship because one partner earns more – yet only 1 in 10 boomers say it causes friction.
“Millennials are facing different challenges” such as college debt and cultivating their careers, Simpson points out. “That puts more pressure on them to think about their finances.”
Millennials are also getting married later than previous generations, giving them years to establish their financial habits and independence, she adds.
“We’ve recently seen a trend among millennials where they value their independence more than other generations, specifically as it relates to their finances,” says Dana Marineau, vice president and financial advocate at Credit Karma.
About two of three millennials in relationships keep at least one separate bank account from their partner, Marineau says. That suggests “they enjoy the freedom to spend their money how they want,” she adds.
Who makes investment decisions?
Yet there’s still a wide gender gap when it comes to which partner is calling the financial shots, according to TD Ameritrade. About two-thirds of men say they make their household’s investment decisions, the survey found.
That speaks to the need to improve women’s financial literacy, TD Ameritrade’s Simpson says. Almost 6 in 10 women said they wished they had more confidence in their financial decision making, according to a recent study from Allianz Life.
At the very least, the partner who is managing finances should provide a report or explanation about their decisions to the other, says Shelly-Ann Eweka, wealth management director at TIAA. But, she adds, more women should be involved in those investment choices, especially because women have longer lives than men on average and will need to make their retirement income stretch for more years.
For Shocki of North Carolina, taking on the role of breadwinner is empowering. Her advice to other women who are breadwinners: “Embrace it. Be proud of what you worked for, and if you have a supportive partner, they should be proud of you, too.”
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