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Husband Worries: What If My Wife Earns More Than Me?

“How can I justify staying in the military when my spouse earns more than me?” Those were not the exact words an Air Force major used to ask a panel on ‘Redesigning the All-Volunteer Force’ at a recent event for the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.

His exact words were something about retention and “the changing nature of the military family.” But that wasn’t what he meant.

WHAT IFMY SPOUSE OUTEARNSME?

The real question.

Just like everyone else in the audience, I could hear the real question the Air Force officer was asking the panel. I have magic ears like that (also I asked the guy after the event just to be sure.)

He told me that what he meant was more along the lines of, “Just like me, my wife is highly educated. She is just as ambitious as I am. She has student loans that have to be paid. She earns more than I do and has potential to earn even more. How am I supposed to justify moving her around to all these Air Force bases in remote locations where there is no real work for her?”

It was an excellent question. Unfortunately, the panel did not have their magic ears on that day. Or the experts knew the answer to his problem was not an easy one to hear.

The 'problem' of the ambitious military spouse.

In our nation, women now graduate from college and go on to graduate school at rates higher than men. College educated women are now just as likely to be doctors or lawyers or professors or scientists as  teachers or nurses or social workers (jobs traditionally held by women.)

According to a recent report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers, these women earn roughly the same amount as similarly educated men in their 20s. By the time both genders reach their late 30s, however, men are earning nearly 50% more money—and that is just the civilian side of things. In military families, it is even more complicated than that thanks to moves and non-metropolitan locations.

How do you solve that?

This isn't a new problem even though it is new to that Air Force major.  In the knot of people gathered around him to talk about this issue after the event, one military spouse who worked for a government agency said, “I’m not like the spouses of 20 years ago. They can’t expect me to give up everything and move all the time.”

Well, I am a spouse of 20 years ago. I’m a spouse of 27 years ago, in fact. We weren’t raised to wear an apron and wax our kitchen floors and PCS without question either.

Twenty-five years ago, my neighbors -- an engineer, a psychologist, a Naval Investigative Services officer, a preschool director a secretary and two teachers -- would push our toddlers on the swings and debate these same issues.

We were so sure the military would have to change. It didn’t. From where we stood as the years went by we could see that no matter how special our particular service members were, the military had recruited enough equally special people to be able to afford to lose some of those highly educated, ambitious couples.

Some of those ambitious couples in our neighborhood left the military. Some divorced. Some spouses got jobs. Some devoted themselves to their families full-time. And Big Military rolled along no matter what we did.

So what would you tell that Air Force guy?

If you were standing in that group, what would you have said?  Would you come right out and tell the guy the military will not stop moving families? That promotion in the military will be for those who follow the career enhancing job, not the ones who stick with a single location? That he should stop looking to the military or the government for an answer?

The experts dodged this issue. My ambitious friends and their service members cobbled together solutions that worked (or didn't work) for them.  But if we are going to deal with generations of educated and ambitious military couples, can we really afford not to make accommodations?  Or will there be enough of a difference in retention that a change must be made?

 U.S. Air Force photo by Megan Crusher.

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