Now that women dominate the US workforce, will they become our new robot overlords? Nope. According to current labor statistics, they'll be the new working class. Here are three ways a female working class could change the world.
Image via Shutterstock.
"Women's jobs" will become everybody's jobs
In this month's Atlantic cover story, Hanna Rosin argues that we're witnessing "the end of men" - mostly because the recent economic downturn hit men harder than women. To bolster her point, Rosin explains how the working class will soon be ruled by women:
Men dominate just two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most over the next decade: janitor and computer engineer. Women have everything else-nursing, home health assistance, child care, food preparation. Many of the new jobs, says Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, "replace the things that women used to do in the home for free." None is especially high-paying. But the steady accumulation of these jobs adds up to an economy that, for the working class, has become more amenable to women than to men.
Reading that, you might leap to the conclusion that the economy is growing for women, but shrinking for men. You'd be wrong.
It's unlikely that the female dominance of the working class will last very long. As Ann Friedman points out, the aspirations of job-seekers will shift with the market. Men who want a respectable working class income can certainly tackle nursing, child care, and food preparation with as much aplomb as women. What we're likely to see over the next decade is a shift not only in how many women are part of the working class, but what kinds of jobs all working class people do.
Male nannies and nurses, in the minority now, are likely to become more common. The question is really whether female engineers will become more common too - especially since engineering jobs are among the most highly-valued in the market.
What will this mean for the future?
Jobs we think of as "pink collar" are going to become blue collar. Men will be working as nurses and housekeepers. This could be the moment when gender stereotypes really start to break down in the West. We've already seen images of professional women enter pop culture (and real life). Now we're going to see images of men heroically supporting their families by working in child care. Nothing like turning child care into a source of cash to make it honorable and manly.
Perhaps a more interesting question is whether this shift will mean upward mobility for families once classified as "working class" based on their income. In 2005, 77 percent of people in the top quintile of US households had two or more incomes. That means most families in the lower quintiles have only one wage-earner - most likely, a man. With two wage-earners, many working class families will ascend into the middle or upper quintiles.
But what about families that remain in the lower quintiles, with their single income? If women are now over half the workforce, it stands to reason that many working-class families will have stay-at-home dads. Ironically, these men may be doing the very jobs for free that their wives are doing for money - child care, cooking, housekeeping, and elder care.
Image by Le Minh Quoc
Childrearing and marriage are no longer connected
Today, more women are primary breadwinners in their families than at any other time in history. Rosin writes, "In 1970, women contributed 2 to 6 percent of the family income. Now the typical working wife brings home 42.2 percent, and four in 10 mothers-many of them single mothers-are the primary breadwinners in their families."
In the past, most women had no way to survive unless they were supported by a husband or a father. Especially if they wanted to have children, they had to find a man who would not only pay to support them, but their children as well. That meant that women rarely dreamed of having children without marrying a man. This wasn't just a matter of morality, but plain and simple economics. Now all of that is about to change.
What will this mean for the future?
We are about to witness a revolution similar to what happened in the 1960s with the introduction of the Pill and other readily-available forms of birth control. Once women could have sex without fear of pregnancy, norms around sex shifted. Most young people began to have sex before marriage, and today it is common for people to have many sexual partners throughout their lives, most of whom they will never marry.
Today the revolution has to do with child rearing. Now that women can have children without needing a man to support them, it is going to become more common for women to have children outside marriage. But this doesn't mean you're necessarily going to see a rise in single motherhood. Women will be free to experiment with many different kinds of parenting arrangements, from raising children alone or with a female partner, to raising them in an extended family.
More reproductive freedom does not mean women will want to lead non-traditional lives or abandon their families. In twenty years, a woman might decide she wants children, but instead of getting married she wants to live with her parents and grandparents. Because she has the income to pay for her child's needs, and to contribute to the family home, she now has the freedom to choose this option.
Photo by Clairity.
Women will be in direct class conflicts with each other
There have always been class conflicts between women, but they were rarely direct. The daughter of a wealthy man could look down on her poor governess in the nineteenth century, but if the wealthy man died, our snooty girl would be left penniless because she couldn't inherit property. And besides, "looking down on" somebody is a psychological conflict rather than an economic one.
Today, women are competing directly with each other in the job market. Women now hold 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs, which means that they employ each other. They have boss/worker class conflicts that only existed between men as recently as a generation ago. This situation is part of what has allowed so many women to catch up to men in the workforce. Middle-class women are able to work professional jobs because they hire their working-class counterparts to take care of their kids and homes.
What will this mean for the future?
Bizarrely, a futuristic world of working women could take us back in time. We may return to arrangements that look a lot like what people had over a century ago, when servants and nannies took care of middle-class homes while the middle- and upper-classes ran countries and businesses. Except this time around, women's incomes will be what allows a household to afford its servants. (Remember, the wealthiest families are dual-income.)
This could spell the end of feminism as we know it in the West. Though the women's movement has always been riven by class and race differences, the overarching issue of women's inequality has brought disparate factions together. In a future where women workers report to women bosses, fewer and fewer women are going to feel that they share a common social status with their sisters. In fact, female nurses might feel like they have more in common with male nurses than they do with the female hospital administrators who treat them like crap and cut their hours.
Women's equality with men may spell an end to women's solidarity with each other. But women will forge new alliances - ones that have nothing to do with gender. And maybe that isn't so much the end of feminism, but the beginning of a world that no longer needs it.
This is the first installment in my weekly editor's column for io9, where I'm going to talk about science, the future, and all the hopeful fantasies that are seething inside our brains.