Being a Two-Career Couple Requires a Long-Term Plan

by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

Quick Takes

  • Consider career choices from a long-term perspective
  • Identify your current relationship model
  • Acknowledge the advantages and risks of the path you choose

“We learned to take the long view, mostly because we didn’t have any other choice,” says Kate, now in her sixties and busy investing in the next generation of entrepreneurs. “Both sticking to our full-time corporate jobs or one of us becoming a full-time parent weren’t attractive options to us. We wanted to change the model, not just flip it.”

Kate and her husband, Matthew, were a classic dual-career couple. They met in business school, married, and settled into two demanding corporate jobs. But Kate quickly saw that there were too many layers in her firm to get to the top anytime soon. Matthew had a quicker route in his flatter organization. When the couple decided to have children, they sat down and strategized together. How could they design two careers that could give them both what they wanted: meaningful work, financial security, and a great family?

One of their innovations was to plan a lifetime family career—together. Most of us are well meaning in wanting to support our partner and their careers. But thinking about two careers individually and then trying to marry them together is often a design challenge. Matthew and Kate started with designing a life and retrofitted it to identify careers that might deliver it. They devised a single vision for themselves as a couple—and the family they had just started. They thought of it as a team vision, as they might at work. What were their respective strengths, and their respective dreams? How could they use each other to guarantee the success of their broader vision, while minimizing some of the risks they might bump into along their road? It wasn’t so much the plan that helped them, they found. It was the conversation and the search for complementarity. They were each agreeing to contribute to building something to fit them both, over a life span.

In their thirties, they decided that Kate would leave her corporate job to gain the flexibility she prioritized short-term to care for their two young children. Matthew would continue in his corporate role to cover this life phase’s financial needs. She would launch a business she had identified as having serious potential and test run it. If it worked, he could join her later down the road to scale and sell it and be able to reinvent themselves again.

And it worked.

From the Sum of Two to the Power of Two

Dual-income couples are the norm: Over two-thirds of couples in Canada and the U.K., and 60% of couples in the U.S.1 Your partner may be your most significant career asset.

Not only can your working spouse mitigate risks like being made redundant, they can also serve as a trampoline to allow you a shot at your dream, whether it’s a novel or a nonprofit, a startup or a soap opera, and whether you grab it in your thirties or your sixties.

It wasn’t possible in an earlier era of single-earner families, where the financial burden historically (and often still psychically) fell to the man. Nor is it true today among the growing number of couples who simply flip the gender roles but still stick to the same model (nor among single-parent households, dominated by women). These options have little flexibility and less security in increasingly volatile economic times.

But for too many dual-career couples, even in an era of supposed equality, two individuals can end up competing for short-term trade-offs rather than cooperating for longer-term, mutually beneficial gains. Couples end up negotiating, based on current realities, rather than pacing themselves for the long (and lengthening) haul. This translates into decisions based on who has the higher income, the assignment abroad, or the babies. How many couples decide that one parent will stay home because the cost of childcare is more than one parent’s (still usually mom’s) income? They forget to calculate the impact of that choice on that parent’s career, on their lifetime earning potential (opting out can cost up to $1 million in lost income), and on the couple’s opportunities to switch roles or combine them.

As careers morph into 50-year marathons rather than 30-year sprints, we may also want to think of couple careers over much longer time frames. We still let too many decisions made in our thirties seal our professional fate for decades. How much more reassuring to know that you can hand the baton back and forth—and still finish the race in style.

Flex Your Mind to Find Your Model

For many, there is more focus on innovation at work than at home. So invite a little brainstorming into your family boardroom (the dinner table). What’s your model? Are you both happy with your respective roles as currently defined? Is there a dream one or both of you feel it’s time to dust off and discuss?

Here are some of the models I’ve seen couples define, negotiate, and enjoy, sometimes only for a phase, sometimes for a lifetime. All of them work, as long as both halves are aligned and agreed—at least for the moment.

  • Single career—a historic classic. One partner has the career that defines everything else. The spouse and children follow that career. This often allows for high salaries and gives one partner total work focus. The other partner is open to all other roles, without having to worry about income. But the couple is more at risk of unexpected and complete loss of income. The nonworking partner will find it much harder to recover from eventual separations or divorce, and may not be putting anything aside for retirement. One of the challenges for many senior women (most of whom have working partners) is that they sit on senior teams dominated by men with nonworking wives. This puts them at a competitive disadvantage when the team cultures created by single-career spouses lean to the 24/7. Because they can.
  • Lead career—a version of single career. One career is clearly dominant and will define where the couple lives, where they move to, and so on. The other partner has a more flexible career role, even part-time or freelance. This model has the same advantages and some mitigation of the disadvantages of the single-career model. For example, Jo followed her oil executive partner around the globe and turned her trailing spouse role into a profession. She wrote books about how to reinvent yourself and became an online editor and writer’s coach.
  • Alternators—many couples opt for what they see as an egalitarian alternation of opportunity. Each has first dibs for the next promotion or geographic move, and the other agrees to adjust in function. This doesn’t always mean the other partner follows, with family in tow. Sometimes families stay in one place, and the roving partner commutes a lot. In multinational companies, many spouses live apart, sometimes for years. This approach can get a bit transactional if it’s held to too inflexibly. When “my turn” becomes absolute, couples lose the balance they were aiming to build. Helen and her husband, Rob, a highly successful and very visible pair of CEOs, alternated weeks throughout the year. Each would be able to fully focus on work, travel, and urgencies one week out of two. The other week, they’d have primary responsibility for everything else. It allowed them to be able to enjoy both roles fully and regularly.
  • Parallelograms—two parallel, high-powered careers, commonly known as “power couples.” Often mutually reinforcing, these careers have professional networks and knowledge that feed each other. These couples love to talk shop and share what’s going on in their mutual careers, because it nourishes the other. Parallelograms can learn from each other and buy from each other’s companies. Juliet and Andrew run two separate but related businesses, where one heads the for-profit arm and the other the nonprofit arm. Together, they make a successful combination. The risk here is usually for the family, which may not get as much attention as they’d like. Their parents are too excited talking to each other. Two big careers are particularly frustrating to employers these days, as these couples are increasingly less mobile geographically. The seniority of the other partner’s job is not always easy to replicate or transfer.
  • Complements—diversity in couple careers can be as beneficial as diversity in any team. Couples with very different kinds of careers, with different phases, peak periods, and time frames, often find life a bit easier to sort out. Pressure points are often not at the same time of the year or at the same phase of life, so they can be more easily managed. Complements cover a vast range of occupations, from the corporate career and the academic, to the entrepreneur and the writer. George and Anne used time shifts as their differentiator, with one being a night nurse, the other an engineer by day. Their time home overlapped for breakfast and dinner. Juliet was a flexible freelancer when her children were young, and her husband, John, loved his corporate work in social responsibility. When their children were older, her business took off. John retired early from his successful career and was able to travel the globe with his wife and her growing business. Another advantage of very different tracks is that it relieves some of the competition that can exist between careers that are similar. Two lawyers or two consultants who progress at very different speeds, especially if there are childcare choices involved, can lead to conflict. Complements tend to have different success criteria and life cycles, which can work together well.

Whatever model you choose, the secret lies in the codesign. You may move from one model to another over the course of ever-longer careers, and that may even be part of the plan. But it helps to be able to put a name on what you’re both doing and acknowledge the advantages and risks of each option at different phases of life. Dual careers offer flexibility, security, and options. Each spouse has a supportive partner who shares a life vision and is as invested in your career choices as they are in their own. That is exponentially beneficial to both.

Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, February 26, 2018 (product #H046QX).

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