For good reason, Western society has evolved beyond a system that determines a person’s role based on rigid gender norms of manual work and war-making for men, homemaking and childrearing for women. This does not mean, however, that a division of labour between the members of a household is always and in every respect or possible configuration a bad thing.
A well-functioning household provides its members with shelter, food, companionship, love, leisure time and other forms of crucial life support. It also contributes to the health of the larger community. It does this in a variety of ways, such as by providing a base for its members’ participation in the life of the neighbourhood, engagement with local politics, volunteerism, and so on.
From the sciences, we know that all complex systems, from amoebas to multinational corporations, require significant inputs of energy from the surrounding environment in order to continue to maintain their functions. We also know, from operations theory, that slack and excess capacity are crucial components of any system – from factories to emergency rooms – that is to run efficiently.
And yet, despite this knowledge, we have not given our households enough slack, enough support, to function successfully. And as a result of this failure, both the individual households and the communities constituted by them are failing.
The old way – which is perhaps also the most obvious and simple – way to create slack in a household is to have one partner stay home and keep house, and this may be a good place to start. Traditionally, the stay at home partner was invariably female; obviously, we are not advocating a return to the 1950s.
Rather, the household’s choice of primary breadwinner should be made together based on what makes the most sense in a given situation and stage of life rather than on gender. And while it requires a great deal of planning and strategizing, partners may, if they are fortunate, be able to trade these roles back and forth over the course of a life together.
Of course, all of this flies in the face of conventional contemporary wisdom, which suggests that none but the wealthy can afford to live on a single income. To be sure, it is hard to pull off, particularly in a society as aspirational as ours.
And yet how many of our ancestors, despite having vastly less of almost everything than we have, managed to make the single-income household work? Furthermore, we have options they could only dream of when it comes to non-traditional work options, thanks to the online world of muse businesses, side hustles and passion projects. It seems reasonable, then, to think that more people can afford this lifestyle than our culture has been willing to admit.
Therefore, when circumstances permit, couples and domestic partners should consider an arrangement in which one partner prioritizes a career while the other focuses on managing other aspects of the household and its relationship to the rest of society.