INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL SILVERSTEIN | BY JANENE LIN
You’ve predicted that women will flip the income gap by 2028—that’s an exciting, and bold statement! What is that based on?
We built a comprehensive database of income by gender. The correlation between education and income is almost perfect—the more education you have, the more money you make. About 10 years ago in the U.S., the number of women undergraduatessurpassed men for the first time. And now 57% of undergraduates are female, 59% of graduate students are female. They are really pursuing high-income careers. They are breaking the glass ceiling. And they are changing the demographics of how income is earned. In about 29-30% of two-income households in US., she already makes more money than he does. And if you go into NYC and stop a hundred 20-somethings, and you were able to pull out their W2s from their pockets, you’ll find that she makes more money than he does already, today. So, it’s a combination of new entrants into the labor force who are female and educated, and old entrants in the labor force who are leaving (male factory worker jobs and women who were secretaries), and you get a mathematical redistribution of income. So it is an analytically derived number based on income, education, forecasts on continued high-income per high education correlations, and the disappearance of a lot of factory jobs.
How does this trend map on the global landscape? Is it happening around the world, or only here in the US? We have a theory that it’s happening globally, just at different paces (faster here in US than in India, for example). What are you seeing?
So it’s happening in almost the entire developed world. In the developed world, women have figured out that, in order to compete, they need to be educated. And they’re getting educated en masse. In the U.S. about 80% of high school valedictorians are female. If the admissions directors at the Ivy League campuses wanted to, they could fill 100% of their enrollments with qualified women. And if you go to the better universities in Europe, the same is true.
When the income gap is flipped, what do you envision the state of the economy looking like? What do you think it’ll look like 20 years from now?
I think the future of the world economy is actually quite good. I’m a big believer that there will be a huge amount of innovation, a huge amount of new businesses created, and new jobs created. There will be substantially less gender discrimination, and with less gender discrimination, there will be an enormous amount of diversity of thinking, which will lead to higher quality investible business propositions. I believe that women in power will set the tone for a peaceful, kinder, more loving world. And so, as women rise both politically in government and in business, I think prospects for global peace will be higher. Men start wars. Women don’t start wars. So I see a future of prosperity.
One other side affect of higher education for women is that the number of births per women will decline, and therefore, the amount of capital per child will increase, and the world will have a lot of smart happy babies who have very ambitious mothers who want them to deliver. So in my view, it’s an exciting future.
That’s fantastic! So now let’s talk about the price that this ascension has come with. You wrote that there is a revolution of dissatisfaction—the gains that women have achieved have not brought them the happiness and satisfaction one might have expected. Can you elaborate more on that?
That’s a fact based on data. If you ask women who have high income and high education about how their lives are, probably 35% would say that they suffer from somedepression, issues of self-esteem and an inability to create a home life that they wanted to create. Life is not without trade-offs. If you’re going to work 70 hours a week, and compete in a man’s world, and you’re going to win, you’re going to have to make some number of sacrifices.
According to my databases, roughly 50% of marriages end in divorce. And again, according to my data, divorced women are substantially less happy than married women. They have less of a love life. They are much more alone. On the other hand, women who are married, have more money and when they make more money than their husbands, they actually have it all. They have time, money and love. They can buy leverage, they can get help at home. So there’s an upper caste within the female population that can, in fact, snap their fingers and can get stuff done.
What about the level of happiness within marriages where the women are the sole income earner for the family?
The vast majority of the behavior is the following: two reasonably educated people living together. And it’s “nip and tuck” in terms of who has higher income. So I think that that is a dominant model. My research would say that people look to marry people like themselves and they don’t look to marry opposites. And my data would say that less than 5% of marriages are those where the women are the sole income earners for their families. I don’t see that percentage growing over time. The vast majority of educated couples are those where both partners work. And that’s what creates the “super wealth.” That’s what allows them to get a nanny, live in a big house and go on vacation. It also allows them to be happier. The women who are least happy are divorced and poor.
Remember that Beatles song, “Can’t buy me love?” Well the truth is, you can.
You’ve written that there are lots of demands on her time now. The majority of women participate in the workforce, but these women still do most of the household chores. How are her expectations of household responsibilities changing?
It is a fact that there is a division of labor at home. And the division of labor doesn’t depend on how much money you make. If you are a female, you are the predominant caregiver of the children. It’s not to say that he doesn’t do anything. But women do more than he does. In the kitchen, you dominate. In the cleaning arena, you dominate. In lawn care and car care, he dominates.
I do believe there is a new emerging couple that basically says, “hey we’re both working our asses off, so we’ll each do approximately half.” But I think that’s one of those minority couples. Because even “modern trendy couples” do a division of labor. I’m a modern trendy couple. But I do the cooking, and she does the laundry, and she hates it when I do the laundry because I’m not good at it.
So you see a division of labor based on what each person in a relationship is good at or likes to do, rather than a traditional sense of what the division of labor should be?
Couples decide what they like to do and don’t like to do. Successful couples have the ability to work it out as a deal.
So what about expectations on marriage, especially as women ascend into higher socio-economic status?
One issue is the timing of marriage. For women with advanced graduate degrees, the marriage typically doesn’t happen until age 30 or older. The first baby used to happen at 28, and now the first baby is happening a lot later than that. That puts a natural limit on the number of babies. That is, you have these highly educated couples that have a max of 2 children. You’re taking the highest educated and intelligent population, and their procreation rate is definitively negative because two becomes 1.7.
In terms of engaging men on this issue, do you have any data around how men feel about the big flip?
So I did do a survey of both men and women following the publication of my book “Women Want More,” and what I would say is that women are very articulate about their emotions and the context for their statements. If you ask her whether she is happy or depressed on a 1-10 scale, she will fill out the answers using all the numbers on the scale. You ask a man the same question; they will give 4, 5 or 6. Men basically stay in the middle. So they’re less articulate, less in touch, and less specific.
In my casual conversations with hundreds of men that I’ve encountered, they are not happy about the role reversals. They actually like to be the breadwinners. They like to be the one that brings home the bacon. For the wealthy men married to powerful wealthy women, there is a restatement of relationship and power. Some men adjust to it perfectly well, and some men file for a divorce.
What do you mean by the “restatement of relationship and power?”
So power is associated with the purse string. And the rise of the middle class in America in the last 25 years is because she went to work. One hundred percent of the growth in income at the family level is attributable to female participation in the workforce. That’s a statistic that very few people know. During that time, there was a doubling of real family income. That’s an incredible statistic because she permitted the family to move into a bigger house, to have better educated children, to buy more and better clothes, and to go on vacations. She is the one who contributed the incremental income. And typically in the budgeting of a family, there are basic expenses, and many women assign those basic expenses to their husbands. And then everything that is discretionary uses her income. And that is a complete and almost total power swap. And because my study is global, I can look in developing markets. And in the Middle East, men actually spend a larger percent of their income than women, and that’s because very few women work. In India, less than 20% of women work, and he controls the household like a despot with absolute and total power. So money equals power at home, and in America she uses it. I think this is a wonderful thing. It fits completely with your thesis of the “big flip.” I’m certain the big flip is a good thing, because it grows the pie, and when you grow the pie, people are happier. The wealthy, on average, are much happier than the poor.
Thank you for that. I have one last fun question: for love to endure in big flip marriages, _____________. How would you finish that sentence?
The natural polarity of men and women has to be allowed to exist. By gender, people have natural tendencies in terms of personality. Men are bigger, stronger and more powerful than woman. And in order for big flip marriages to endure, there has to be an acceptance of masculinity and the rightful role of the male in the relationship. It can’t be a relationship where they’re roommates. If they’re roommates, it’s over.
Michael Silverstein is a senior partner and managing director in Boston Consulting Group’s Chicago office. He is a leader of BCG’s consumer practice, and originated many of BCG’s qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. Michael’s groundbreaking research with more than 20,000 women in 21 countries led to the popular 2009 book, Women Want More coauthored with BCG partner Kate Sayre and published by HarperBusiness. This book is the story of the rising female economy—a $5 trillion global growth opportunity. Michael’s prior research focused on luxury goods and discount products and led to two other books: Trading Up (2003) and Treasure Hunt (2006) He has since written The $10 Trillion Dollar Prize, the story of Chinese and Indian consumers growing affluence.
This interview is the first in our new series of posts, Perspectives on The Big Flip. In Perspectives, experts from diverse backgrounds—psychologists, divorce mediators, sexuality experts—explain what’s driving the rise of breadwinner wives, why the role reversal creates friction in marriages, and how big flip families can overcome these challenges and thrive. In addition to experts, a few divorcees whose marriages didn’t survive the flip have kindly agreed to share their experiences so we can learn from them.