By the mid-1990s, 1 of every 4 families in the United States with children under 18 was a single-parent family, up from 1 of 10 in 1970. Oddly enough, no plausible explanation for this increase has been found, either within distinct subgroups or in an overall sense. The career development of single parents cannot be considered as intentional, as most single parents have not actively chosen that status. For the most part, the career development of single parents begins in the same way that it occurs with other individuals, but the status of single parenthood disadvantages them in the labor force as soon as that status is reached. In particular, a lone mother has less time than a couple does, both to care for children and to advance her career.
Single mothers of young children work more hours than married mothers with young children. Moreover, as married working moms have decreased their participation in the labor force in the past decade, many single moms have increased their working hours, although there are data to suggest that some are actually working fewer hours than they did in 1970. Single parenthood is becoming increasingly common, and it is estimated that more than half of all children will spend some time without two parents at home. Furthermore, most single parents, especially mothers, are economically disadvantaged, having to hold jobs without much career potential. Lone mothers typically occupy the bottom rungs of income distribution in the United States, Great Britain, and Norway, as well as other affluent nations. Indeed, single-mother-headed households are more likely than any other family households to live in poverty. For many low-income mothers without access to low-cost day care, the question of whether work is worthwhile or provides opportunity for advancement is relevant.
Single parents can be displaced homemakers, adolescent mothers, or single fathers. Single parents are not solely defined by their marital status, nor are all single parents alike within that status. For instance, divorced fathers with sole custody do not have the same backgrounds as unwed adolescent mothers, and so it is difficult to talk about career development for single parents per se. As Susan Whiston and Briana Keller have pointed out, career development is context bound. Individuals who become single parents earlier in life are more disadvantaged with respect to educational, career opportunities, and acceptable standards of living than those who have had the chance to get adequate training and work experience before they became single parents. Moreover, women with college educations are more likely to postpone childbearing than women with less education. Even when women are adequately trained, however, the careers they enter are likely to pay less than men’s careers, and when they enter the same careers as men do, they are paid less. As recently as the mid-1990s, female accountants earned less than 75 percent of male accountants’ salaries. This difference in salary holds for many other traditional male occupations.
Beyond the economic issues facing single parents, little is known about single parents’ attitudes and role conceptions. In a unique study of Air Force officers and enlisted personnel, Terri Heath and Dennis Orthner found that single men and women did not differ much in their adaptation to work and family responsibilities. They did, however, find that men and women differed in their compartmentalization of roles. Organizational satisfaction was women’s most important predictor in their ability to manage work and family role; career stage was more predictive for men. In addition, prior research has found that although single female parents experienced higher role strain than their married counterparts, they displayed equivalent levels of job motivation, performance, and absenteeism, and higher levels of job satisfaction.
Attitudes toward single parents (mostly mothers) continue to be remarkably negative, irrespective of how these households are constituted. Female college students raised in traditional households hold more negative attitudes than those raised in single-parent families. Employer attitudes toward single parents have been found to be problematic as well.
In short, the career development of single parents can be difficult if they become single parents before they have college educations, if they cannot find affordable child care, if they work in environments hostile to their status, or if they work in occupations with little room for career advancement. If, however, single parents are college educated and employed in middle-class careers, their attitudes toward work and multiple roles are not particularly different from their married counterparts.
- Culture and careers
- Family background and careers
- Low-income workers and careers
- Socioeconomic status
- Workforce 2020
- Heath, D. T. and Orthner, D. K. 1999. “Stress and Adaptation among Male and Female Single Parents.” Journal of Family Issues 20:557-587.
- Kerka, S. 2004. “Single Parents: Career Related Issues and Needs.” Retrieved August 8, 2014 (http://www.ericdigests.org/pre-928/single.htm).
- Noble, C. L., Eby, L. T., Lockwood, A. and Allen, T. 2004. “Attitudes toward Working Single Parents: Initial Development of a Measure.” Educational and Psychological Measurement 64:1030-1052.
- Whiston, S. C. and Keller, B. K. 2004. “The Influences of the Family of Origin on Career Development: A Review and Analysis.” Counseling Psychologist 32:493-568.