The way women and men spend their time has changed profoundly over the past century. Women in the developed and, to some extent, the developing world are spending much less time in unpaid household work, especially in tasks like cooking, cleaning, and laundry, and much more time in paid work. Men are doing a little bit less paid work, and perhaps a little bit more household work (Aguiar, Hurst and Karabarbounis).
Being in the paid workforce is not intrinsically superior to, or of greater moral worth than, being a housewife or a stay-at-home parent. But there is one salient difference between unpaid work within the home and paid work: cash. Money can be withdrawn from the household budget and used for one's own personal pleasure. Unpaid work is much harder to convert into the latest phone or an evening out with friends or a new coat.
Bargaining models of the household are a way of exploring the difference between paid and unpaid work. In a bargaining model, the household is viewed as a place of both cooperation and conflict. The gains from cooperation come from producing goods together as a team, and from economics of scale or household "public goods". The conflict is over how the gains from cooperation are shared:
This "fall-back" position is sometimes conceptualized as divorce, but I have argued that a more fruitful way of thinking about it is non-cooperation within marriage. With a non-cooperative threat point, anything that increases the wife's command over resources - the Canada Child Tax Benefit, for example - would be expected to shift the household's allocation of resources in a direction that she prefers:
There's a fair bit of evidence in favour of this model - studies that have found that a lump-sum transfer of income towards women has real impacts on household expenditure, typically leading to higher spending on education and on children. Mukesh Eswaran's recent book Why Gender Matters in Economics has a good survey of the literature.
Bargaining models of the household assume that households are able to bargain - that men and women can change the way that they relate to each other; they can change the way that they spend money and allocate tasks. And it seems that they can do so - up to a point. A thought-provoking recent paper by Bertrand, Kamenica and Pan found that people just don't seem to form and maintain relationships where the wife earns more than the husband - either people don't get married in the first place, or the wife cuts back her hours of work, or they're more likely to split up. Here's the picture, based on US SIPP administrative data:
This is not really surprising. A study done a while back by Bittman, England, Sayer, Folbre and Matheson found that husbands who were out-earned by their wives actually did less work around the house than husbands who had similar to, or slightly greater earnings, than their partners. If this result is true more generally, it's probably not surprising that relationships where the wife earns more than the husband aren't that common.
These findings suggest - though are far from being conclusive proof - that gender identities impose hard limits on household bargains. Some people are unable or unwilling to accept household arrangements that contradict traditional gender norms. They will not accept being a relationship where the wife earns more than the husband, or the husband is the primary caregiver.
Gender identities are hard to change. But we are not going to go back to a world where women, especially women without young children, stayed home all day cooking and cleaning. It is madness to spend hours washing clothes by hand when a washing machine does a vastly better job of the task; it is practically and ecologically unsustainable for people to go back to growing their own food and cooking it over a wood stove. Doing more than a minimal level of housework is now a choice rather than necessity - and it's a choice not everyone wants to make. And profit-maximizing employers want productive, good-value-for-money workers - and that as often as not means hiring a woman. So we are stuck in a world where lots of women will out-earn men - and have a higher level of education as well.
In this world, people have two choices. The first is to be more flexible about gender identities, and redefine what it means to be a good man or a good woman. Perhaps a real man is one whose shoulders are broad enough to carry a baby in a carrier; a real woman is one who can provide for her children's education. The alternative is to have rigid preconceptions about what relationships should be like, and refuse to accept any relationship that doesn't fit with those preconceptions.
The problem with taking the second option is that - given the reality men's and women's lives - a good number of people are likely to end up being without partners. And being without a partner typically means having less sex.
So what will happen? Will sex triumph over patriarchy - by which I mean, will people's desire to be in relationships cause them to be more flexible about gender norms? Or perhaps, in a world of travel and same-sex friendships and an endless stream of entertainment just a click away, singledom is a pretty good place to be?