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Rise of the desperate house husband

Like it or not, the recession is reshaping our domestic landscape. Time to consider seriously how th

There were two fathers this week at our tiny Oxfordshire playgroup. One dad among all the mothers, mumbling valiantly through the more obscure nursery songs in the manner of John Redwood tackling the Welsh anthem, is de rigueur for modern toddler gatherings. But two? Two means solidarity, a masculine presence subtly altering the chemistry in a roomful of women. They ended up happily talking football while washing up the Play-Doh cutters.

For both sexes, such blurred gender lines should be welcome. One of the biggest shocks of my maternity leave was navigating the overwhelmingly female world of those at home with small children: after a career spent in testosterone-soaked newsrooms, I found all that warm fuzzines confusing. Men used to living and working with women might equally find an all-male office weirdly retro now.

But suddenly these divides have started to crumble at great speed. A recession that has pummelled traditionally male industries - construction, finance, manufacturing - while sparing the female-dominated public sector (at least until the spending cuts start) is quietly redrawing family lives.This recession has driven men back home and some women into work.

In Canada, the number of women in employment recently overtook the number of men for the first time. Women in the US may pass the same milestone soon, having reached 49.9 per cent of the workforce. Although such progress looks breathtaking, it is less a female surge than a case of men falling back. But it has profound implications: four in ten American working mothers are now their family's main breadwinner, while the number of US female professionals whose husbands don't work has risen by 28 per cent in the past five years.

After the mancession

In Britain, the pace of change is slower - over 46 per cent of the workforce is now female, up from 45 per cent in 2007 - but there are still a lot of men who suddenly have time for playgroup. In every quarter since last spring, redundancies hit men proportionally harder than women. Employers report part-time women asking for more hours because a partner's income is at risk. And a surprising 7 per cent of mothers with three children now have more than one (usually low-paid) job. Research from the Family Commission, a study of roughly 1,000 families, led by the charity 4Children, has shown a rising trend for house husbands.

The rise of the female breadwinner/male homemaker model seems a logical outcome of a "mancession". It happened during the Great Depression, too - the percentage of working women in the US rose between 1930 and 1940, despite immense social disapproval of women "stealing" male jobs. Then, as now, need simply trumped other considerations for many couples: typically "female" clerical or sales jobs survived the slump better than "male" roles, and were thus easier to get. The trend continued into wartime as female employees replaced men away at the front.

Without a war, the gender power shift could quickly go into reverse when the recovery begins (or public-service jobs start being axed). But if it isn't a temporary blip, how might that affect both professional and domestic life? Does she who earns the pay cheque call the shots? Should he who changes nappies get custody of the children after a divorce? Some men, post-recovery, may not automatically pick up where they left off. Treasury officials predict a permanently smaller future economy, with some manufacturing jobs migrating overseas and a shrunken City. Many new jobs will be graduate-only, favouring girls, who now outnumber boys at university.

Other questions arise for fathers pushed into temporary part-time working as an alternative to redundancy. When recovery comes, might some who can afford it, having got used to seeing more of their children, seek permanently shorter hours? Similarly, some mothers forced into upshifting their careers will discover they don't want to stop when the crisis is over.

Status anxiety

Office culture has already been greatly feminised over the past 40 years, both superficially - girlie calendars stripped from garage walls, tights machines installed in the House of Commons - and more profoundly, with a new emphasis on "soft" skills and parental rights. The critical mass of working women has started to change the culture, but has proved weaker on structural inequalities such as the pay gap. Canadian women still earn 74 cents on average for every man-dollar. A female-dominated workforce counts for little if most of those women remain stuck in low-status jobs.

And becoming the breadwinner in a crisis may be a bitter-sweet experience. Many working mothers will simply be relieved they can still support their family if a partner loses his job, others genuinely liberated by doing so. But some will be torn between suddenly needing to make more money and still wanting more time with their children. And while it may make financial sense for an unemployed father to mind the children, emotions are less easily directed. Where house husbands are reluctant, and working mothers guilty or jealous, resentment quickly follows. Evolution in family structure is a sensitive business and changes that are hard to debate calmly in public - as recent near-hysteria at Westminster over the future of marriage has shown - can be even harder to negotiate within a stressed home.

But we are entering a new year and, perhaps, a new decade characterised by uncertainty and change. It will bring opportunities as well as conflicts. Like it or not, the recession is reshaping our domestic landscape. Time to consider seriously how that should look.

Gaby Hinsliff is former political editor of the Observer

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special