The Washington Post

When women are the breadwinners and men are the caregivers, how will innovation change?

We are witnessing a broad-scale reconfiguration of American society based on gender. That means the biggest disruption ahead may not be technological — it could very well be social and cultural.

Consider the evidence: a record-breaking number of women are now the breadwinners in their families, while the number of men becoming stay-at-home dads and primary caregivers continues to climb. Is this the tragic demise of traditional hunter-gatherer society, or a huge opportunity for the next generation of technology start-ups?

Writer and stay-at-home dad Chris Illuminati, 33, sits with his one-year-old son Evan in their Lawrenceville, N.J., home Thursday, March 10, 2011. Illuminati said he had depression symptoms starting when his son was about 4 months old. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Writer and stay-at-home dad Chris Illuminati, 33, sits with his one-year-old son Evan in their Lawrenceville, N.J., home Thursday, March 10, 2011. Illuminati said he had depression symptoms starting when his son was about 4 months old. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Take the caregiver scenario, for example, in which men — not women — are taking on the responsibility of caring for loved ones. Studies from the AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving show that men and women take different approaches to caregiving. Men are more likely than women to use the Internet as a caregiving resource and less likely to directly provide the personal care of a loved one. If viewed in the extreme, this could have profound implications: instead of a Florence Nightingale model for caregiving, in which empathy and compassion are central, we might instead see a shift to a much more techno-centric approach based on data and hard science.

Instead of spending weekends tinkering on cars in their garage, men might instead spend this time tinkering on their computers in the hunt for a better way to care for their family members. A more techno-centric approach to caregiving would seem to open the door to new types of online experiences for health-care management. It would also seem to create opportunities for next-generation employment sites such as TaskRabbit, which would use technology to track down the third-party caregivers who can perform the personal care “tasks” formerly performed almost exclusively by women.

Next, take the workplace scenario, in which women are the new breadwinners, while men take on different, lower-paying roles or simply stay at home to take care of the children. This flip-flop in traditional workplace roles could mean that we’ll see the emergence of even more types of technologies that cater to the traditional strengths of women – sharing, communication, openness and participation. With more women spending more of their time at the office, and more men staying at home, it will almost certainly lead to a new model for bringing up our children, in which technology, perhaps, plays a more central role.

For women who can’t afford to bring the nursery to the office (ahem, Marissa Mayer), technology start-ups have the opportunity to create new models for daycare that would reduce the burden of having to drop off and pick up kids at a certain time each day. Who knows, maybe all those driverless cars we keep hearing about will one day be the “nanny cars” that transport kids to and from their next extracurricular activity with absolute accuracy?

It has been argued that these seismic changes augur the end of the natural order and the disintegration of marriage. Yet, as The Economist points out, science cuts both ways when it comes to gender roles. There are examples of aggressive, male-dominated societies in the wild (chimpanzees), but also plenty of examples of peaceful, female-dominated societies (bonobos) as well. It may also be the case that these demographic trends are just momentary blips. Skeptics, for example, point out that many of these demographic changes can be explained by the recent recession, which disproportionately displaced men from their jobs and temporarily thrust them into new (and, for some, unwelcome) roles.

One thing is certain, though, the changes are profound, not just based on gender, but also on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. And they’re already starting to shape everything from immigration policy to marriage equality in dramatic ways. We are so used to describing how technology is changing society (just try Googling “how technology has changed our lives”), that sometimes we forget how change can occur the other way around.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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