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Marriage Obsession Gets Recharged

Would modern women give up their careers for marriage and children?

A century ago most women wanted to marry because they lacked career opportunities.  Yet, women who are established in high-paying jobs, or careers sometimes give them up and go back to being homemakers. It happened in the 1950s and the marriage imperative may be getting a boost from new legislation in Germany.

In the early decades of the 20th century, employed women had low-level service jobs and their career options included nursing, teaching, and little else. In the course of the war effort in World War II, women went to work in skilled trades turning out ships, aircraft, and weapons.

Known as “Rosies” after an iconic “Rosie the riveter” poster of the period, these women became highly skilled and were well paid. After the War, however, many threw away their overalls and settled down to raising families contributing to a huge baby boom.

Why choose marriage over a career?

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Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this shift back to marriage was that it represented a choice. There are very good practical reasons why women chose marriage over work. To begin with, the return of large numbers of service men eager to settle down meant that their marriage prospects were better than they had been for some time. In that sense, they made hay while the sun shone.

Not only were there plenty of single men, but most of them had excellent job prospects. One key reason is that American manufacturing industries enjoyed a tremendous post-war boom due to the fact that the manufacturing infrastructure of key competitors, particularly Britain and Germany, had been reduced to rubble.

All of this meant that there was a good demand for labor generating high wages. A single salary was enough to support a middle class lifestyle for a couple and two or three children. (There are many reasons why this is no longer true including stagnant wages, rising home costs, and uncontrolled inflation in education and healthcare expenses).

To cut a long story short, they wanted to have families and they didn’t need their own pay to make this possible.

Fast forward to Germany in 2013. Our former opponent built over the rubble to once again become a leading global manufacturer. At present, German labor policy is administered mostly by family-friendly politicians who want to help women combine work and motherhood (1). Although most of the key players are strongly feminist, they have introduced a perverse incentive that gives women a choice rather like what they faced in the 1950’s, i.e., work versus family.

A perverse incentive with unintended consequences

The German government is highly supportive of women raising children. Yet, fertility remains very low with average fertility of 1.4 children per woman versus the 2.1 needed to maintain the population

This paradox is partly explained by research showing that German women with children earn much less than their childless counterparts ten years after graduating from college. One reason for this is that about half of Germany’s female employees work part time.

This occupational disadvantage of mothers occurs despite there being a female Chancellor (Angela Merkel) and a female Labor Minister (Ursula von der Leyen) who tries to make it easier for women to combine motherhood and a career drawing on her own experiences as a physician and mother of seven.

Now the female Family Minister, Kristina Schroeder, is pushing for an extra allowance to be paid to women who keep their toddlers at home rather than sending them out to daycare. Many Germans are concerned that this incentive will have the perverse effect of providing women with an incentive to remain out of the work force.

The logic, of course, is that this “stove premium” (because it ties women to their kitchens, 1) is telling mothers that their place is in the home.

This recalls the 1950’s. The key difference is that the German government - rather than their husband - pays them to stay at home. If the incentive is enacted into law, it will have a similar effect. More German women will turn their backs on careers and devote themselves primarily to marriage and children.

1. Nicholson, Esme (2013, May 7). Germany’s paradox: Family-friendly benefits but few kids. NPR.. http://www.npr.org/2013/05/07/180610371/germanys-paradox-family-f...

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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