Prof. Steve Horwitz of St. Lawrence University has a fascinating article up at MarketWatch, in which he argues that many of the major changes in family structure and gender roles we have seen over time are primarily a result of market forces and increasing prosperity. Serendipitously, I recently attended a lecture by Prof. Jerry Muller, presented by the Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets, in which he made many of the same connections.
The Industrial Revolution, for example, created new opportunities for wage labor outside the home and family farm, so all sorts of poor people—men, women, and children—ended up taking those jobs to contribute to the household’s income. As real wages rose with increased productivity, more men were able to become sole breadwinners for their entire family, and children and women were able to return to the domestic sphere. Many of those children went to school rather than doing any physical work, and women generally assumed the role of what many people today consider the “traditional” homemaker.
But in many ways that tradition was short-lived. As an array of labor-saving devices for the home proliferated in the early 20th Century, women were again seeking career opportunities outside the home. Horwitz points out that this has led, for example, to more women working with young children, a trend that itself has been made possible because women, in recent decades, have been having fewer children on average, making paid daycare a more affordable option.
I suspect Horwitz and Muller might disagree on the second half of Horwitz’s MarketWatch article that applies the same analysis to sexual orientation and individual expression, but the overall theory—that “social” trends have a lot more to do with economic effects than many historians and sociologists acknowledge—remains a compelling one.