The Long Goodbye to the Male Breadwinner Model

Jurists and social scientists come up with recommendations for greater equality of opportunity

February 10, 2011

The man brings in the money, the woman looks after the household, children and any other relatives who may require care, and maybe earns a little something on the side: this is the way gender roles are usually assigned in German families. This division of labour is associated with certain risks for women: they pay less into the state pension fund and have less income at their disposal. The urgent need for action in this area, if we are to prevent poverty in old age, avoid a crisis in caring for the elderly and create greater gender equality, emerged clearly at a conference entitled “Zeit für Verantwortung im Lebensverlauf – Politische und rechtliche Handlungsstrategien” (Time for Responsibility in the Life course – Political and Legal Action Strategies), to which the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Social Law and the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth invited representatives from the German parliament, associations and science to mark the completion of the long-term research project “Was kommt nach dem Ernährermodell?” (What Comes after the Male Breadwinner Model?).

“Giving people time to assume responsibility, to contemplate the upheavals and critical transitions in their life courses, and offering them support is a matter of crucial importance,” says Eva Maria Hohnerlein from the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Social Law, in reference to the task undertaken by the three independent research groups that examined the topics of support for family-member carers, matrimonial property law and women as family breadwinners as part of this project. Together with law sociologist Edda Blenk-Knocke (also from the MPI for Foreign and International Social Law), Hohnerlein was responsible for the scientific coordination of the interdisciplinary research project on the changes in the role models of women and men in society and law, which was funded by the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.

The research groups presented their findings to the political arena at the conference. In addition to submitting a detailed account of the allocation of roles in the various family settings, they also provided realistic proposals for new action strategies in the field of gender equality policy. “Gender roles are in flux today. The roles assumed by women and men are often subject to – planned or unplanned – changes over the life course. Therefore, all three research groups examined topics that focus on the typical role models at certain milestones or critical transitions in the life courses of men and women,” explains sociologist Edda Blenk-Knocke.

Supporting family carers

Meist sind es Frauen, die ihre Angehörigen pflegen, wenn diese alt und gebrechlich werden

The “Supporting Family Carers” research group, which was headed by Ulrich Becker, Director of the MPI for Foreign and International Social Law, investigated the topic of care in the domestic context. “The principle of the primacy of home care, which is enshrined in the German long-term care insurance system (Pflegeversicherung), indirectly implies the de facto allocation of the responsibility for relatives who require care to women,” says Edda Blenk-Knocke. Of course, male partners and sons who care for family members also exist in Germany; however, they are in the minority. Seventy-five per cent of the care provided in the home is provided by women. “The basic role model that lies behind the provision of care by family members in Germany remains the traditional male breadwinner model, which is based on a wife who is not gainfully employed or does little paid work, is insured indirectly through her husband and can do without her own income and independent social insurance,” the sociologist explains.

However, as the research project has shown, the reality of the role models is far more varied. “Independent income security in our society is mainly achieved through employment,” Blenk-Knocke comments in reference to the socio-economic background to the project. Women in full-time employment are able to fund their own pension provision but would face a double burden if they had to care for relatives themselves in their spare time. Part-time workers make lower contributions to the pension insurance funds. Thus gender equality and social policy face the challenge of achieving greater compatibility between the provision of care and work. “Otherwise, we will soon face an enormous problem”, warns her colleague Hohnerlein with reference to current demographic trends and statistics, according to which the risk of requiring care may be expected to rise significantly from the age of 85.

The research group presented different options that could improve the situation of family carers, e.g. through the possibility of a legal entitlement to leave of absence that would go beyond the current legal provisions. According to the researchers, an important starting point from a gender equality policy perspective would be the provision of legally-based workforce withdrawals and transitions for women and men who assume responsibility for providing care to relatives in the home. According to Hohnerlein, different solutions for minimising the financial disadvantages associated with a period of caregiving are conceivable. “These range from compensation for reduced income for employees to the financial recognition of the care provided by family members who could also be associated with the professionalisation and, therefore, upgrading of this activity.”

Accompanying measures, for example in the areas of health insurance or unemployment insurance, could contribute to the minimisation of the financial risks for family carers. “And the chances of achieving an adequate standard of living in old age are increased through the improved crediting of periods spent providing care by means of pension payments based on the model of payments for childrearing periods”, she explains, as yet another possible way of improving the situation. “Whatever form the incentives for the greater involvement of men in home care may take in the future, without sufficient financial compensation, it will be impossible to overcome either the foreseeable emergency in eldercare or the unequal risk distribution between men and women arising from the assumption of responsibility for the provision of care,” stresses Blenk-Knocke.


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