The Rise, Resilience, and Challenges Of 2-Career Couples

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Gone are the days of the single-career family. Today, 62% of US employees have a partner who also works full time, and 2-career couples (2CCs) have become the norm.

The risk mitigation of two incomes sources has never been more relevant than in a time of pandemic-fuelled unemployment and uncertainty. The 2CC model has been growing steadily in popularity (some would say by necessity) even before the crisis. It accompanies two shifts: in gender roles and generations. Both are clear in the numbers: 78% of Millennials are in 2CCs , compared to 47% of Boomers. The young have figured out that relationships and careers aren’t mutually exclusive, but can you have it all yet? Yes, says the research, but it takes some conscious coupling.

Many claim you can’t. Studies suggest 2CCs might be spreading themselves too thin, sacrificing career satisfaction for the job-plus-family-simultaneously script. A recent McKinsey survey found that both men and women were “happier” with their jobs when they were part of a single-career couple. The constant and conflicting pressures of combining careers and kids, especially in countries with little public policy supporting parents, may simply be too much to handle. Most couples yearn to conciliate work and family but struggle mightily with making it work. The Covid crisis is throwing oil on many a domestic fire.

The Need for New Models

But maybe we just don’t have the right models yet. In times of confusion, it helps to have a vision for your couple, and some kind of roadmap for navigating it. Research from Cambridge on some alternative 2CC models I proposed a couple of years ago is enlightening. I identified seven different models I had observed over a couple of decades of coaching executives, both individuals and couples.

Entirely new models are emerging for couples

Melanie Robinson, a micro-economist, decided to explore these models as part of her Executive MBA at Cambridge University. She conducted research on 242 women in 2-career partnerships, testing their choice of career model and its impact on their career, family and/or life satisfaction. (It will be interesting to follow up with the impacts on men). Robinson’s findings are clear. “Unless couples explicitly have conversations about dual career management, it’s easy to fall into stereotypes. Lots of couples do. They usually start with default assumptions they aren’t even aware of.”

Gender Balance at Home

Just as gender balance at work takes strategy and leadership, so does gender balance at home. If we want to manage the complexity of 2CCs, we need some fresh design thinking. “Happiness,” suggest Robinson, equals “Expectation minus Reality. So a key conclusion from this study is whether partners have good discussions which enable decisions being made consciously – and together.”

  • Most People Don’t Plan Their 2CC Model – More than half the respondents had not had an explicit conversation with their partner about how to manage and conciliate their careers. Robinson’s analysis shows that if one partner had a strong viewpoint, they often dominated in lead partner models.
  • Lead Careers Reduce Your Partner’s Career Satisfaction – Women whose partners had the lead career had significantly reduced career satisfaction compared to those who were in more balanced career models with their partner. Seems obvious, but good to have the data to prove it.
  • Your Career Doesn’t Have To Harm Your Family (or Your Life) – High career satisfaction had no overall negative impact on family and life satisfaction, suggesting that with the right model, women can have both the career and family life that they want.
  • New Models Make (or Take) Supportive Partners – Women with higher levels of career and peer support from their partners have higher levels of overall satisfaction. These higher levels of partner support are also associated with the newer, more egalitarian, 2CC models. Robinson suggests that a supportive partner promotes these more democratic career models, which in turn lead to higher levels of career, relationship and family satisfaction among women.

Choose to Choose

The most important element of a successful 2CC is co-designing it with your partner. And the need for flexibility as life ebbs and flows. The models that serve in one decade may not work in the next. Many couples will start with one model, morph into another and age into yet another. My client Martha, and her husband Paul, began their careers as Parallelograms upon graduation, as they both took jobs in large organisations. Then later became Alternators when they started a family and decided to take turns being the primary child carer. Later in life, they became Mergers and started a family business in their fifties. Different models suit different life goals and phases. It helps to know they exist.

Of course, all this requires a partner that will support , rather than compete, with your own career aspirations. The good news? Robinson’s work proves you don’t need to sacrifice career for family satisfaction. With a little bit of planning, and the longer careers that longevity has unleashed, we may be able to start seeing a growing number of gender balanced couples who finally figure out how to have it all – together. Like the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and her super supportive and successful husband Marty . They were Parallelograms all their long lives. Or Jane Fraser, the newly appointed CEO of Citi, and her husband . They seem to have followed the Alternator model, which has enabled her to reach the heights of Wall Street in her 50’s.

It’s time to applaud the growing number of 2CCs – and find inspiration in the new models on offer and the enhanced contentedness they offer the whole family.

By Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, Contributor.