The Emergence of a ‘Trailing Husband’ Phenomenon Following Retirement

Today’s retirees are a cohort where the husband has traditionally been the dominant breadwinner. As such, family migration for this generation demonstrates the powerful role of the husband in the decision to move. Decisions were influenced by the husband’s employment, career and earning capacity with the wife/female partner widely acknowledged as a ‘trailing wife’, ‘tied mover’ or ‘married to her husband’s job’. In other words, she was prepared to move for the sake of her husband’s career even if it resulted in a negative effect on her own employment prospects.

This research (Stockdale 2016) explores if the gender balance of power and influence shifts within couples when employment or career considerations are removed from the decision to move. In other words, which partner leads the decision to move following retirement? This is studied with reference to retired couples who had moved to rural areas of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and involved a series of interviews, many with both partners present. The study found the following:

First, throughout the economically active stages of these couples lives together, it was the husband who led in any decision to move involving a long-distance relocation. Such moves were influenced by the husbands’ career opportunities with wives reported to ‘tagalong’. This occurred even when the wife was highly qualified and resulted post-move in wives’ suffering periods of unemployment, part-time work, or taking ‘lesser jobs’ relative to their qualifications and experience. Such moves also frequently coincided with a family formation or expansion stage for the couple.

Second, the decision to retire by the couple was again husband-led. His decision signalled the couple’s retirement with wives frequently synchronising their own retirement (if in employment) with that of their husbands.

Third, the retirement move to the countryside was just as likely to be initiated by the wife as the husband resulting in the emergence of a ‘trailing husband’ phenomenon. The husbands’ powerful decision-making influence earlier in life was now replaced by wives taking the lead and husbands following. With the removal of employment considerations (following retirement) the wife assumed greater influence in where the couple chose to live.

Fourth, following retirement migration to the countryside it was husbands who found it most difficult to adjust or settle in, at least initially. Husbands struggled to cope with the combined life changes of an exit from the workforce and a move. By comparison, wives more easily established new social circles in unfamiliar surroundings and quickly became actively engaged in their new rural community.

This research points to a changing gender role during the course of these couples’ lives together and in relation to the reasons for moving. When employment is removed from couples’ decision-making wives assume greater influence in the overall decision. Period effects are also likely to be at play here. Earlier in these couples’ lives together traditional patriarchal gender roles are likely to have dominated: today gender roles are more egalitarian. Indeed the current generation of retirees is probably the last to hold traditional gender roles including the male as breadwinner. Findings can be expected to be very different among subsequent retired cohorts consisting of more egalitarian and dual-career couples, and where the female partner contributes most to the family finances. As a consequence very different family migration and retirement migration patterns and decisions may emerge in the future.


Stockdale, A (2016) From ‘trailing wives’ to the emergence of a ‘trailing husbands’ phenomenon: Retirement migration to rural areas. Population, Space and Place DOI:10.1002/psp.2022

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Aileen Stockdale

About Aileen Stockdale

Aileen Stockdale is Professor of Environmental Planning at Queen's University Belfast. Her work focuses on rural migration processes and especially migrant decision-making, experiences and consequences (including for rural origin and destination areas).

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