At some point in the past few years, you have probably seen a dad out alone carrying Junior in a sling as he shops for the best-value diapers and formula. You can easily imagine an ambitious young woman studying hard for a prestigious career, looking forward to landing a job with a six-figure salary and a husband who welcomes her home with a freshly baked cookie. And you'll have no trouble conjuring up a high-powered lawyer working late at the office on a big case while her husband feeds the kids and gets them to bed with a story.
The question is not whether these scenarios are a fantasy dreamed up by feature writers and TV producers looking for a new storyline. They are certainly cropping up in pop culture, but they're no fantasy; they're scenes from a future that's already here. They might not be the norm everywhere (yet), but they're increasingly common all over the developed world -- not only in socially progressive Nordic countries but also in the United States and other democracies.
This is all part of a long, steady trend of great developments for women going back well over a century. In politics, it's been 110 years since New Zealand became the first modern democracy to grant women the right to vote and run for political office (Switzerland was the last, in 1971). It's been 50 years since oral contraceptives were approved and gave women more control over whether to have children, when and how many. Women have surged forward in education wherever they've been given a chance. On every continent except Africa, women are coming to dominate college and professional-school enrollments.
Laws against gender discrimination have enabled women to get jobs, earn their own money and take more control of their life. All over the world, women are steadily becoming a larger proportion of people at work. In the United States, women make up around 47 percent of the overall labor force but 52 percent of people in management, professional and related occupations.
This is not to say that women have made it and are home free; plenty of things still need fixing. High on the list are unequal pay and access to higher-level jobs. Maybe even tougher to fix is how women can return to work after they've had children, which brings us back to those scenarios at the beginning of this piece. As moms are out working, dads are beginning to pick up the slack; 32 percent of American fathers with working wives regularly care for their children under age 15, up from 26 percent in 2002; around 20 percent of fathers with preschool-age children are the primary caregivers.
From a 1950s (or even a 1980s) perspective, these are amazing figures, but they're just the early part of a trend that's going to go a lot further. It's true that the percentage of married-couple families with a full-time stay-at-home dad has doubled, but it's from a meager 0.4 percent in 2000 to just 0.8 percent in 2012; by comparison, 22.9 percent of families have a full-time stay-at-home mom.
The Sex Appeal of Devoted Dads
Pop culture has taken the dad-as-primary-career scenario and run with it. Most recently, the NBC show "Up All Night" features a lawyer trying to get on top of the parenting brief. In the view of journalist and author Hanna Rosin, who wrote The End of Men, "the show's main innovation is creating a reliable stay-at-home dad whose wife still wants to sleep with him." Hollywood's latest effort is What to Expect When You're Expecting, in which four dads show off their baby-handling skills while strutting their comic stuff.
A lot of the gender-shifting trend is being driven by economic trends. The macho muscle-power jobs of the 20th century are giving way to gender-neutral work that requires education and social skills, tipping the balance toward women. This balance tipped even farther when the mancession of the economic crisis saw more men than women losing their jobs. In 40 percent of American families, women earn more than their male partners, and they're on track to become the majority in that category soon. Economics are forcing the balance, but women have developed a taste and the capabilities to make their mark in the wider world while growing numbers of men have decided they're happy to try something different.
The best workplaces have raised the bar on what employees can expect, proclaiming the power of "meaningful" and "fulfilling" work. The reality of paid work, however, often falls far short of the ideal -- more "Dilbert" or "The Office" than Fast Company. So, if Mom can earn more than Dad, then good for her and good for the family; why not free her up to get on with it? Being the primary caregiver is increasingly being seen as a rational and appealing lifestyle choice for men; it promises a warm glow of fulfillment and long-term bonding with the children as an appealing alternative to money and professional status.
Rather than being diminished by the rise of women, the growing ranks of devoted and capable dads are likely to find their new role liberating. Watch for the rise of child-oriented masculinity challenging program makers, brands and advertisers to reflect the essence of this emerging new reality.
This is the sixth in a series of 14 posts expanding on Salzman's forecasts for 2013 in her annual trends report, a program of global communications group Havas Worldwide. This year's book, What's Next? What to Expect in 2013, was published on 12/12/12 and is available at 120MBooks.com. Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America and an internationally respected trendspotter.