Characteristics of malebreadwinner, female-breadwinner and equal-earner households in Australia: The role of couple-level human capital

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Ruth Steinbring
Francisco Perales
Janeen Baxter
Jack Lam


female labour, dual earners, division of labour, human capital, labour market


Changes in men’s and women’s labour market investments over recent decades raise questions about how today’s couples negotiate household earnings arrangements. Using insights from human capital theory, we examine associations between household characteristics and couples’ relative earnings. Drawing on longitudinal data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey spanning the 2000 to 2019 period, we compare couple-level human capital characteristics of female-breadwinner,
male-breadwinner and equal-earner households. Our analyses reveal an increase in the share of equal-earner households over the first two decades of the 2000s, coinciding with a decline in male-breadwinner households. We also find that women in female-breadwinner households have greater levels of human capital than their partner and women in other household types; men with a long-term health condition are more likely to be in female-breadwinner households; and female-breadwinner households have the lowest overall earnings of all household types. These results offer broad support to the directions taken by the Australian Government’s 2023 White Paper on Jobs and Opportunities, indicating that policies that enable women to invest in their human capital may reduce the disproportionate number of male-breadwinner households.

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