Throughout history, people’s positions in society, status, work, and worldview were dictated virtually from birth by the social class/socioeconomic status and other characteristics of their families of origin. Furthermore, men and women were ascribed different roles in society and in the family. Sex differences in lifestyle and careers were profound and largely immutable in any given society, though they varied greatly between societies and across time. In the late twentieth century, sex differences began to erode, and women gained genuine choices as to how to live their lives—arguably for the first time in history. Two social changes were especially important.
First, the “contraceptive revolution,” from the 1960s onward, gave sexually active women reliable and independent control over their own fertility for the first time in history. This allowed women a real choice as to whether they would devote their entire lives to child-bearing and child rearing and prompted a rise in voluntary childlessness, up to 20 percent in some countries.
Second, the equal-opportunity revolution of the late twentieth century ensured that women would realize equal rights to access all positions, occupations, and careers in the labor market. Sometimes the access was extended to posts in the public sphere, including political representation. In some countries, legislation prohibiting sex discrimination goes beyond the labor market, giving women equal access to housing, financial services, and other public services.
These two fundamental social changes were complemented by other changes in society and in labor markets, which have given women in liberal modern societies new choices in careers and lifestyles. As a result, men have also acquired some flexibility, because the primary-earner role no longer invariably falls on their shoulders.
A taken-for-granted assumption in recent feminist theory was that all women would choose permanent full-time employment and careers in the market economy as soon as sex discrimination ceased to be the main barrier to women’s activities in the public sphere and career success. It was assumed that given the choice, women would willingly swap a domestic role in the home for waged work in the market economy and that it was patriarchal male strategies of exclusion and segregation that had kept women out of paid work. Catherine Hakim’s review of research on women’s lifestyle choices in the late twentieth century in modern societies showed that this was mistaken; only a minority of women, around 10 percent to 20 percent, pursued competitive careers in the market economy in the same way as men, suggesting that only one-fifth of women preferred this lifestyle. Building on this empirical research evidence, preference theory states that women, as well as men, display heterogeneous lifestyle preferences even after social and economic changes in modern societies offer them genuine choices. Three dominant lifestyle preference groups occur among men and women, albeit in different proportions.
Work-centered women are a minority, despite the massive influx of women into higher education and into professional and managerial occupations in the last three decades. Work-centered people (men and women) focus on competitive activities in the public sphere, in employment careers, sports, politics, or the arts. Family life is fitted around their work, and many women remain childless, even when married. Qualifications and training are obtained as a career investment rather than as an insurance policy, as in other groups. A majority of men are work centered, compared with only a minority of women, even women in professional occupations.
The second group, home-centered or family-centered women, is also a minority, and a relatively invisible one in the Western world, given the current political and media focus on working women and high achievers. Home-centered women prefer to give priority to private life and family life after they marry. They are most inclined to have larger families, and they avoid paid work after marriage unless the family is experiencing financial problems. They do not necessarily invest less in qualifications, because the educational system functions as a “marriage market” as well as a training institution. Despite the elimination of the sex differential in educational attainment, an increasing proportion of wives in the United States and Europe are now marrying men with substantially better qualifications, and the likelihood of marrying a graduate spouse is hugely increased if the woman herself has obtained a degree. Very few men currently fall into the home-centered category.
Between these two extreme groups, each with one dominant priority in life, is a large and diverse middle group labeled adaptives by Hakim. These women prefer to combine employment and family work without giving a fixed priority to either. They want to enjoy the best of both worlds. Adaptive women are found in substantial numbers in most occupations. Certain occupations, such as school teaching, are attractive to women because they facilitate a more even work-family balance. The great majority of women who transfer to long-term part-time work after they have children are adaptive women who seek to devote as much time and effort to their family work as to their paid jobs. Recent surveys in Europe suggest that two-fifths of men also fall into this group, a larger number than popular stereotypes suggest. At present, there is less latitude for men than for women to pursue adaptive lifestyles.
Lifestyle preference groups differ in values as well as preferred activities. Work-centered people have marketplace values, with an emphasis on competitive rivalry, achievement orientation, and individualism. Family-centered people emphasize sharing, caring, noncompetitive, collectivist values. Adaptive people must juggle two competing value systems.
This diversity in female and male lifestyle preferences has possibly always existed. But in the past, economic necessity was generally the primary determinant of women’s employment choices. Typically, wives and children had to work in order for families to survive. Today, in prosperous liberal societies, women can choose to enter the workforce or not, and they can usually choose between part-time and full-time employment. Modern societies reveal female heterogeneity and the beginnings of male heterogeneity to their fullest extent, and lifestyle preferences are becoming a much more important factor in career and job choices.
- Hakim, C. 2000. Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century: Preference Theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Hakim, C. Models of the Family in Modern Societies: Ideals and Realities. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.
- Hakim, C. Key Issues in Women’s Work: Female Diversity and the Polarisation of Women’s Employment. London, UK: Cavendish Press.