Here’s the problem men have today: They understand how bad it feels to be raised by a dad who is never around.
Those boys are grown up now, and they are dads. And they don’t want to be like their dad. They want something different.
We have unrealistic expectations for fathers.
So more men are leaving the workforce than ever before. But when men stay home, they are largely disrespected as incompetent breadwinners. And the men who choose work all the time are largely disrespected as incompetent parents. If they try to do a little of both, they are not particular standouts in either. (I’m struck by the art world’s depiction of this problem. For example, Nathan Sawaya‘s sculpture pictured above, and a comic strip from Zen Pencils that depicts the problem.)
The other challenge to being a standout breadwinner is that you almost always need a big city. Most people imagine themselves raising their kids in a metropolitan area. But the truth is that it costs a lot of money.
NYC, SF and LA require $150K/year in order to raise two kids in a middle-class life. Some people will disagree with me, but none of those disagreeing will have two kids over the age of six in one of those cities. This is true in the suburbs of places like Boston or Chicago as well. Sure, there are cheap suburbs, but there are not good schools in cheap suburbs.
Most men will not make enough money to afford living in the right kind of metropolitan area. The number of men who will make $150K after the age of 35 is tiny. First of all, if you want to be making $150K after 40 you need to be making it at age 35. Which means you need to be clearing $100K at age 30. (And places like Singapore, Tokyo, and Bermuda don’t count. Because you won’t be able to make that much back in the US. Your market is artificially inflated.)
We have unrealistic expectations for husbands.
So let’s say you are 35 and you’re ready to get married. You have a three choices:
1. You earn enough to support a family in a metropolitan area. (You need to reliably earn $150K for the next 15 years – unlikely.)
3. You move to a small town where your career is limited but the cost of living is low. (Negotiate this before you get married.)
The problem is that men don’t like to hear that these are their choices. So men pretend that their salary will continue to rise in their 30s at the same pace it rose in their 20s.
But that approach fails because most women want to stay home with kids.
But let’s say that’s not true for you.
Let’s say you want two high-powered careers. You’ll need tons of childcare. Which means you’ll need to spend almost all your money on childcare. And your wife will struggle to maintain her pre-baby salary because she can’t stop thinking about kids when she’s at work. So you will be very stretched for cash. And stressed, and that’s not great because having a baby kills a marriage anyway, even without the added stress from neither spouse focusing on the baby. (This is why only 9% of mothers even attempt having a high-powered career.)
Now let’s say you have two scaled-back careers. Here’s the problem with that: It’s nearly impossible for people over 40 maintain employment with scaled-back careers. You can’t compete with someone in their early 30s who is going full throttle. They have the same experience as you but more ambition.
Here’s the biggest minefield: Men don’t like when their wives earn more than they do, and women don’t like outearning their husbands either. You can say you and your spouse are different, but the odds would be stacked against you. Because even if one of you is different, it would be really unlikely that both of you are different.
There is not a contemporary template that works for most men.
Here’s the bottom line for men: Few will be big earners. And few will be able to stay home with kids.
The midlife crisis for men is that they are sandwiched between social expectations that they be involved as fathers on one side, and the financial pressures from a disappearing middle class on the other. The only thing that’s different about the midlife crisis for men today and in the 1950s is that social expectations are higher and the expectation that they will have a 1950s midlife crises is lower.
The solution: Have really tough conversations very early in a marriage
Men are likely to feel successful if a marriage starts with assumptions that are realistic.
1. What you earn at age 35 is the top of your scale.
2. Most people cannot afford to raise kids in a city.
3. Two-income couples with equal focus on both careers is impossible.
4. Women who are breadwinners are not happy with being breadwinners long term.
Once you accept these realities you are likely to make better long-term decisions as a couple because there will be more reasonable expectations set on the men.