The pending divorce of Bill and Melinda Gates may not be surprising to those who are close to them. But to those of us who know the famous couple only as an incredibly successful business and philanthropic team it is a bombshell.

The breakup of a marriage is always a tragedy, and even more so when it comes after many years of shared life – in this case 27 years of marriage and the raising of three children, who are still adolescents. A London Telegraph writer observed gloomily: “If their marriage is, as they claim in court documents, ‘irretrievably broken’, then it feels like we’re all doomed.”

The Gateses have their critics – including myself when it comes to nature of some of their philanthropic projects – but, in a world that badly needs models of stable family life based on marriage, theirs, even in retrospect, was an important one.

What went wrong?

Melinda herself laid a few clues in The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, a memoir published two years ago. Her increasingly feminist approach to global issues – and family? – suggests one possible cause. However, as I read an extract from her book a term used in recent family research came to mind: “workism”.

The word may have been coined by Atlantic writer Derek Thompson, who argued in a February 2019 article that work had become a new religion in the United States, at least for “the college educated elite”.

He defined workism as “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

Leading the new believers are rich men. Although in 1980 they worked fewer hours than other men, wrote Thompson, “By 2005, the richest 10 percent of married men had the longest average workweek. In that same time, college-educated men reduced their leisure time more than any other group.”

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with working hard and well at a decent and useful occupation. Nor is there anything intrinsically wrong with becoming wealthy thereby, although after the first billion you might wonder whether you were trying too hard and neglecting something else, like your family.

What doesn’t seem right is making work the centre and purpose of your life.

On the face of it, Bill Gates falls straight into the class of rich workaholics. You don’t amass a fortune of US$127 billion and build a mega-philanthropic organisation by eating dinner with the family every night and spending weekends relaxing with the kids.

By her account, Melinda was something of a workaholic, too, when she and Bill first got together in 1987 soon after she began her job at Microsoft. He first asked her on a date when they ran into each other in the company carpark – on a Saturday afternoon. They “shared a belief in the power and importance of software… That’s why we were so excited to be at Microsoft every day – going 120 miles an hour building software.”

Such was the power of that idea that it took them another six or so years to get married. In the end Melinda discovered Bill in his room with a whiteboard, line down the middle, listing the pros and cons of taking the marital path. These calculations were “not about me [whether he loved her] she said in an interview with The Sunday Times of London in 2019, “it was about ‘Can I get the balance right between work and family life?’”

Apparently, he could not. In Moment of Lift Melinda writes about her growing frustration at always being the one to clean up after dinner. Only in 2001, a year after he stepped down as Microsoft CEO, did Bill start doing the odd school run.

No doubt they could have hired all the domestic help they needed, but family life is more than a series of tasks; it is a web of intimate relationships which are nurtured by doings things together, by conversation, by caring for and learning from each other, by interacting with relations, other families, the community.

All this takes time, and something more: it means valuing the family above work and prioritising those relationships. This is what certain family scholars call “familism” and it is perfectly consistent with husband and wife having unequal but equitable shares of domestic work, especially when the children are young.

Melinda Gates says she took gender roles for granted. When she became pregnant in the second year of their marriage she decided that she would not return to her job at Microsoft after the birth.

Bill was “stunned”. She told him: “We’re lucky enough not to need my income. So this is about how we want to raise a family. You’re not going to downshift at work, and I don’t see how I can put in the hours I need to do a great job at work and raise a family at the same time.”

All very reasonable, but as the birth of their first child approached, Bill kept asking Melinda what she was going to do. “I loved working so much that he couldn’t imagine me giving up that part of my life. He was expecting me to get started on something new as soon as we had Jenn.”

In fact, she was soon taking her first steps in the philanthropic projects that would lead to the launching of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000. There would be two more children and quite a few more years of working behind the scenes, however, before Melinda would take a public role at the foundation. Bill was “fully engaged” at Microsoft until 2008 (not to mention keeping an eye on other investments) so they must have been very busy years indeed – and perhaps of building tension.

Since then Melinda has gotten firmly back on the work track. In her memoir she talks about her tussle with Bill over putting her stamp on the foundation. In 2013 she wanted to co-write the forward to their foundation’s annual report, but he refused. “It got hot,” she wrote. “Bill said the process had been working well and he didn’t see why it should change.”

Eventually, after several years of compromise, the couple did co-sign the letter. But as Melinda has said: “He’s had to learn how to be an equal, and I’ve had to learn how to step up and be an equal.”

In these letters – and in their divorce announcement with its pledge that they will keep working together to address global ills – the Gateses define the general aim of their philanthropy as helping people live “full [or “healthy”] and productive lives”. Productivity is in line with their work ethic and, of course, is a good thing.

But there is an exception: they do not want the poor to produce children.

Contraception is Melinda’s particular emphasis and she talks about it freely as a form of empowering women. Ironically, judging by sub-replacement birthrates in highly developed countries (according to new census figures this week the US rate has plunged to 1.6 births per woman, the lowest in American history) workism might do the job of birth control more cheaply and at the same time more productively than shiploads of pills and injections.

A recent report from the Institute for Family Studies shows that even in some Nordic countries, with all their social support for work-life balance, fertility is falling; among six countries in the region, where work became more important, fertility fell most.

With their brains, their work ethic, money and their social consciences, Bill and Melinda Gates have done a great deal of truly humanitarian work, right up to their contribution to fighting the Covid pandemic.

They are rightly proud of their children, and deserve credit for their struggle to keep their marriage together in recent years. Why they have failed we don’t know, but it could be taken as a warning that work isn’t everything and that success in a career does not guarantee success in the relationships that ultimately give life its meaning.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet