Alamy In the 1970s, Enjoli perfume attempted to capture the hearts (and dollars) of female consumers with its now-iconic commercial featuring a woman in a business suit who bragged that she could “Bring home the bacon … and fry it up in a pan.” The message, which was once revolutionary, has become commonplace: According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, women are now the sole or primary wage earner in 40 percent of households with children aged 18 or younger. But women aren’t the only ones who’ve seen their traditional roles upended: Surveys conducted by marketers and advertisers show that an ever-growing number of men are becoming the primary shoppers for their households.
The Pew study carried both optimistic and pessimistic news. On the bright side, it revealed that an impressive 37 percent of “breadwinner moms” are married women who make more money than their husbands. These mothers tend to be older, college educated, and have a median family income of $80,000 — about $30,000 more than the median for all U.S. families. And, while these married earners comprise less than half of all breadwinner moms, their share of the total is growing: The number of women who outearn their husbands has nearly quadrupled from 4 percent in 1960 to 15 percent in 2011.
Unfortunately, the number of single mothers has almost kept pace: Between 1960 and 2011, the share of households headed by single moms rose from 7 percent to 25 percent of families. And, while the rising number of married breadwinner moms reflects society’s increasing opportunities for women, the story told by the growth in single-mother-headed households is not so optimistic: Younger and less likely to hold a college degree, single mothers have far less earning potential than their married sisters. In fact, the median income for a single mother household is $23,000 — just 28 percent of the income of one in which the female breadwinner is married, and less than half the median household income in America.
There are several reasons for the rise of breadwinner moms: Over the last few decades, marriage rates have declined, the number of women in the workplace has increased, and the number of women earning college degrees now outstrips the number of men doing so.
Another reason is historical: The Great Recession of 2008 was, in many ways, a “mancession,” with an outsized impact on male-dominated professions like manufacturing and construction. At the height of the recession, some estimates suggested that up to 80 percent of job losses hit men. And, while many of those men have since returned to work, a large number have moved on to a more traditionally female sphere: the home.
In 2011, advertising agency Allen and Gerritsen conducted a survey on household work patterns. Forty-four percent of the study’s male respondents “stated that they have the sole responsibility for grocery shopping for their households.” The same number claimed responsibility for non-grocery shopping. In the same study, 52 percent of male respondents reported that they shared responsibility for “transporting kids to activities” and “attending school meetings.” Fifty percent reported that they shared responsibility for “helping kids with homework.”
Advertisers aren’t the only ones who have recognized the shift toward men at home and women at work: the Census Bureau reports that, between 1995 and 2011, the number of stay-at-home dads nearly tripled, from 64,000 to 176,000. In 2010, the Census notes, 17 percent of preschoolers were being cared for by their fathers while their mothers were at work.
This shift has already led to a major change in the way that marketers sell products. If Enjoli’s bacon-bringer was the iconic face of female liberation in the 1970s, Huggies’ 2012 “Dad Test” ads may have been one of the last gasps for the bumbling dad cliche of the 1990s and 2000s. The controversial campaign, which featured butterfingered fathers trying — and failing — to care for their children, provoked a major backlash as furious “Daddy Bloggers” took to the Internet with petitions and Facebook protests. As one critic wrote on Huggies’ website, shortly before the company withdrew the ad campaign, “What is this, 1948?”
Following the backlash, Huggies rolled out a more dad-friendly campaign, a tactic that many other manufacturers (and retailers) have echoed. And, with more women in the office and men at home, this trend seems likely to continue. After all, with women bringing home the bacon and men frying it up in a pan, smart companies aren’t going to risk angering either gender.