Globe & Mail, February 09, 2007
Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.
At a recent social event, I overheard a half-dozen high-powered women talking about their spouses. Astonishingly, all six found themselves in similar circumstances: The women were all at the top of their game professionally, while their previously successful husbands were floundering.
One of the men had stopped working at 40 following a serious heart attack. Another couple had been fired and were taking sporadic, short-term contracts between long bouts of unemployment. Others, facing changes at work that made them hate their previously satisfying jobs, had opted for early retirement.
Their situations mark a new type of career and relationship pattern that is becoming increasingly common. I call it the "new deal" -- more midlife women are thriving in their careers, doing interesting work that engages them, while their husbands have been thrust into unemployment, prematurely retired or producing only marginal income.
These new-deal relationships are not how most couples expected to be living at this stage of their lives, and are turning traditional gender roles on their heads.
We are all familiar with the "old deal." In the traditional version, the man is the breadwinner while his wife looks after home and the family. If she works, the couple has an understanding that his career is more important; when career goals conflict, she defers to him.
In a more recent version, both have careers that are not only sources of income but also of satisfaction. Yet, she still has greater responsibility on the domestic front; so, happily or not, she has to do most of the career juggling. Once the kids are gone, they both expect to continue producing incomes and flourish in challenging, satisfying work.
Now along comes the new deal: The woman is soaring professionally while the man, usually a formerly successful manager or professional, is struggling to maintain a tenuous foothold in the employment market or has withdrawn altogether. This is the same guy who once saw his role as being the provider (even if his wife worked), and his sense of self was tied to his big job.
How did these midlife men end up being displaced? For some, declining health forced them to withdraw prematurely from the work force; others took themselves out of the game. For example, one man I know had an epiphany while caring for his wife while she was convalescing. A gourmet cook, he quit his middle management job and now works part-time in a kitchenware store while she is an executive in a major hospital.
But the great majority were not given the choice. Their new work status has resulted from losing a high-level job and being unable to find anything else comparable.
There are many reasons for this. For one, the workplace that has evolved over the past 10 years has been considerably harsher to men at midlife than to women. Many of my senior human resources clients and recruiter friends say off the record that they prefer to hire an older woman than a similarly aged man.
Older men, they confide, are more set in their ways, spend their time telling old war stories and are not excited about what they are doing.
In contrast, they see midlife women as having superior interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence, being more enthusiastic about their work and more likely to want to mentor young people. The relative absence of women in senior ranks also means that organizations are keener to retain these women as role models for younger women. All this makes them more favoured by employers.
One external recruiter put it this way: "The women have been busy in their 30s and 40s responding to all the demands in their work and personal life, juggling, always multitasking, always thinking about what needs to be done. Because the men are primarily focused on their work, they have not evolved emotionally, have not developed the same kind of flexibility. They become heavier, set in their ways."
There are also psychological differences in the way men and women age. Indeed, research from Career Advisor, my online career-management tool, shows, in numbers, what every woman intuitively knows -- women in their 40s and 50s, freed from their domestic responsibilities, show a sharp increase in their desire to stretch themselves and take risks. "It's my time now," they say; and, for many, it's almost like a fuse is lit under them.
Men, on the other hand, want more autonomy and to be left alone. If they have to work and produce money, they figure, they'd rather just do their own thing and not be bugged.
In other words, women become engaged, men withdraw.
Another psychological difference is that men are hit harder by career setbacks, such as job loss, than women are because they don't have the same friendships, social networks and other support systems.
This disenfranchisement takes its emotional toll on men. For those whose sense of self was tied up with achieving career success and being the provider, it causes a huge loss of identity. They feel diminished in their new role -- as "Prince Phillip, carrying his wife's purse," as one man put it.
The gender role reversal also comes as an unexpected and unwelcome surprise to women. Indeed, whether their husbands are no longer working by choice or not, almost all the women I've talked to have some underlying resentments about their situation. "This isn't what I signed up for" is an oft-heard refrain.
Said one woman whose former CEO husband prematurely retired because of ill health: "I see other friends who are not out there hustling, and am secretly envious. I have lots of friends in the same situation and we all ask ourselves 'why' -- didn't we do everything right?"
Said another, who loves her executive job in human resources: "I get pissed when I'm struggling to put my stockings on with the lights off, so as not to wake my husband. I'm knocking myself out while he's doing yoga, walking the dog and cooking gourmet meals."
Why do they find such life circumstances so disconcerting? In the first place, women have been socialized to expect that, in this life chapter, they will be part of a dual-career couple, not only jointly bringing home the bacon but enjoying a shared sense of excitement about their work and accomplishments.
Now they have to come to terms both with being the major breadwinner -- being "it" as many said -- and coping with their husband's loss of self esteem.
Some must also deal with their own loss of self-identity. For, if truth be told, they didn't expect to lose the cachet of being part of a power couple now that they are no longer married to Mr. Successful.
One woman was so disturbed by her husband's willingness to end a year-long job search by taking a position that pays half of his former salary that she called and implored me to help him. She thinks he's underselling himself -- but what she really meant was that he's underselling her: Making her lose the prestige she enjoyed being married to a man with an important job.
Many women also said their husbands didn't make necessary psychological adjustments to their loss of work status. As one partner of a former executive said: "He just hung around the house all day long moping, doing make-work, watching crap on daytime TV. I wouldn't have minded his job loss or lack of income, but I couldn't take the depression." Their marriage did not last.
There are cautionary notes to be sounded on the new deal. Men whose whole sense of self is tied up in work, who don't develop broader interests or derive satisfaction outside their career achievements become deflated and have difficulty coping with their new reality.
"It's as if he's packed his bags and is waiting to die" is how a therapist friend described a mutual acquaintance, a former executive who, through a combination of bad luck and lack of skills, could not find work. His marriage didn't last, either.
Indeed, the new deal can have a profound effect on marriages. Some women, sensitive to the psychological blow to their partner's sense of worth, feel they must protect their husbands. They may defer to him in traditional, almost girlie ways to flatter his ego. When they come home from work, they don't talk about their job successes. There is, as one woman put it, a fake bonhomie as they pretend their partner is enjoying his newfound leisure.
Other women turn passive-aggressive. They come home and say: "So I guess you've had a busy day tackling this roast. HA HA HA." Or, "Gee, it must be fun to leer at the buns on the young women at the gym while I'm busting my gut to pay the kids' university tuition. HA HA HA."
Still others are more sanguine, acknowledging that they must accept and give space to their husbands' choices or position at this life stage.
Of course, not everyone can do this. And some couples must face up to the fact that their respective needs are so different that there is no longer any glue holding them together. Maybe that's partly why divorce rates are increasing among midlife women, with many more of them initiating the action.
What all this shows is that, as the new deal becomes more common, both men and women are going to have to learn how to renegotiate their roles and expectations and, as couples, learn to reappraise what's really important.