In a recent interview on The Jonathan Ross Show, David Beckham opened up about his new occupation following his retirement from the world of professional football more than nine months ago. “I’m lucky to be a househusband” shared Beckham, as he described his daily routine of getting his four children ready for school each morning, preparing their meals and tucking them in at night—and the subsequent joy it brought him.
Despite being a relative latecomer, the transition of one of the world’s biggest celebrities from international soccer star to ‘soccer dad’ has undoubtedly brought greater attention and even a certain trendiness to the role of the househusband, which is also commonly known as the stay-at-home dad.
As an acknowledgement of this emerging social phenomenon, in the past few years marketers have shifted some of their focus away from the traditional subject of housewives to target and feature househusbands in advertisements for household products around the world. This form of dad-centric advertising, affectionately known as ‘dadvertising’, has also made it to Hong Kong with major campaigns from the likes of Swipe and Samsung portraying husbands who are skilled at taking care of both the kids and the house.
So what’s life like for the househusbands in Hong Kong—whose numbers have increased by more than 160 per cent over a 10-year period, from 9,420 in 2001 to 24,880 in 2011? How has the transition been for these men who, to put it mildly, most likely come from financial circumstances different from those of Beckham (who had an estimated net worth of US$300 million in 2013)?
In an effort to unearth these mysteries surrounding househusbands, the planning team at Grey Group Hong Kong embarked on a six-week ‘Live Expeditions’ research project, which included social-media listening, global and local media and communications analysis, extensive desktop research, as well primary in-person interviews with Hong Kong househusbands themselves. From a legal administrator in Central to a graphic designer in Shau Kei Wan to a ‘traditional’ non-working househusband in Yuen Long, we met these househusbands and more in parks, cafés and apartments all over Hong Kong to understand what their life is truly like.
Here are four interesting themes we uncovered:
#1: Hong Kong househusbands are a pragmatic species
Money, not emotions, largely dictated their ultimate decision to become a male homemaker, as the current and future earning potential of each parent was considered when preparing for the arrival of the child. None of our subjects expressed an initial desire to become a househusband; they assumed the role simply because it was the best option for their families. And given the rising job status and incomes of women in Hong Kong, the primary breadwinner may not necessarily always be the man. As one of our househusbands coolly put it: “Someone’s career must be sacrificed for the family. It’s just about mathematics—whoever earns more goes to work.”
#2: There is a general distrust towards maids
With the wide availability of affordable foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, one might wonder why one parent would remain at home permanently in the first place. Besides the fundamental barrier of having what is essentially a stranger looking after your children, most of the househusbands we spoke to viewed maids as simply an extra pair of hands to help out with household chores, as opposed to responsible caretakers that would assist in the child’s natural development. This view was summarized by one of our subjects: “Domestic helpers can ‘look after’ children, but they can’t ‘nurture’ them.”
#3: Hong Kong househusbands still hold traditional views toward the role of the man in a household
Despite the popularization of the image of the new age, open-minded househusband through TV shows such as Househusbands (Australia) and Up All Night (USA), our Hong Kong househusbands still felt bound to the traditional Chinese saying that ‘Men are breadwinners, women are homemakers’ ('男主外 女主內'). When you consider the primary decision to become a househusband is often due to the man’s relatively lower earning power, the role of a househusband in Hong Kong is not an easy one to assume. As one of our subjects voiced his frustration: “Traditionally, men should be the breadwinner and have their wives lead an easy life at home. I wish I could provide everything for my family, but it’s financially impossible.”
#4: Being a househusband in Hong Kong is the toughest job in the world
For our househusbands who are still guided by traditional beliefs, having to rely on others for a living when their ‘four limbs are still intact’ ('四肢健全') is often a source of shame. Taken harshly, it is a reflection of a man’s inability to fulfil their traditional responsibility. Our househusbands routinely found themselves having to explain and defend their uncommon status to others when they were seen outside of the home at times when an otherwise typical husband would be at work. Common and repetitive questions such as ‘Why aren’t you at work?’ and ‘Do you have the day off today?’ often added to the stress and challenge of being a househusband. In addition, the existence of local slang terms such as ‘eat soft rice’ ('食軟飯'), which are used to deride men who do not earn their own money and have to rely on a woman’s income for a living, only makes life even more difficult for these homemakers in Hong Kong.
The way forward
When we consider the traditional role of a husband and wife in a society such as Hong Kong, we can empathize that the new breed of male homemakers has it tougher than their female counterparts. In this context, advertising can play a powerful role in elevating the status of househusbands, such as leading (and not just simply reflecting) the image of male homemakers and championing the sacrifices these brave men have made for their families.
With the recent addition of David Beckham to this minority group, there is hope that this global icon, who has been a major force in advertising for almost 20 years, will bring a greater level of acceptance toward this modern-day homemaker in Hong Kong and the rest of the world. So the next time we see ‘Becks’ on our screens, here’s hoping he’ll be flogging the latest dishwashing detergent instead of the usual underwear.
Eric Leong (right) is planning director with Grey Group Hong Kong