Millennials stall the gender revolution in the home

Carolyn Moynihan
April 7, 2017
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

Millennials, the American variety at least, are a contrary lot, are they not? One moment they are waxing hysterical about microaggressions on their university campus; the next, we hear that they want traditional families. That is overstating the issue,of couse, but new research shows that people aged 17 to 34 in the US are now significantly less keen on "gender equality" as a basis for family life than the same age group was 20 years ago.

Millennial men, the headlines tell us, prefer stay-at-home wives. And their female counterparts, to a lesser extent, agree. How can this be?

Those who came to adulthood post year 2000 are the generation who were supposed to complete the egalitarian revolution in the home; instead they are putting the whole enterprise in doubt. How much that would matter depends on whether the enterprise itself is sound.

The intriguing thing is that this change is found among the youngest millennials. Sociologists Joanna Pepin and David Cotter used a survey that has monitored the attitudes of high school seniors for nearly 40 years. They found that the proportion of these young people holding egalitarian views about gender relationships rose steadily from 1977 to the mid-1990s, but has fallen since. Stephanie Coontz writes in the New York Times:

"In 1994, only 42 percent of high school seniors agreed that the best family was one where the man was the main income earner and the woman took care of the home. But in 2014, 58 percent of seniors said they preferred that arrangement. In 1994, fewer than 30 percent of high school seniors thought "the husband should make all the important decisions in the family." By 2014, nearly 40 percent subscribed to that premise.

"A different survey found a similar trend, in this case concentrated mainly among men. In 1994, 83 percent of young men rejected the superiority of the male-breadwinner family. By 2014 that had fallen to 55 percent. Women's disagreement fell far less, from 85 percent in 1994 to 72 percent in 2014. Since 1994, young women's confidence that employed women are just as good mothers as stay-at-home moms has continued to inch up, but young men's has fallen. In fact, by 2014, men aged 18 to 25 were more traditional than their elders."

But it's not just the youngest millennials who seem resistant to continuing the gender revolution, says Coontz, who is the director of research at the Council for Contemporary Families, the institution that produced this startling data. She notes:

"Overall, Americans aged 18 to 34 are less comfortable than their elders with the idea of women holding roles historically held by men. And millennial men are significantly more likely than Gen X or baby boomer men to say that society has already made all the changes needed to create equality in the workplace."

So what is going on?

In the first place, millennials are not a homogeneous group. For instance, the ones who are raging against "white supremacist heteropatriarchy" on campus are probably not the ones who ticked the box for "the husband should make all the important decisions in a family" on the survey form. Young adults are much more varied than their generational label suggests. Things like race, religion, education and life experience count.

Writing in the Washington Post, sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox and Samuel Sturgeon, single out two important influences in the resurgence of the traditional view of the family among young people: race, and the rise of "choice feminism" - a style of feminism that emphasises women's right to choose the lives they want without judgement.

Race: In 1980, they point out, only 7 percent of young adults aged 18 to 25 were Hispanic; today, 22 percent are. "That matters because young Hispanics (especially young Hispanic men…) are more likely to embrace a traditional vision of family and work responsibilities than other young adults." Younger African Americans also hold more traditional gender attitudes than do white millennials, they add.

Feminism. Unlike the get-to-work feminist ethic of 1970s, choice feminism, say Wilcox and Sturgeon, "suggested that it was fine for mothers to be stay-home mothers or part-time workers, so long as they decided to pursue this path of their own volition." It "allowed women to invest heavily in their children, juggle work and family responsibilities, and maintain a sense of feminist self-respect." And so:

"It stands to reason that, in the spirit of this choice feminism, many young adults support an ethic of equal opportunity for women in the public sphere, even as they embrace an ethic of gender specialisation in the private sphere."

The prospect of a "stalled" gender revolution (that is, the one concerning men and women, not the gender diversity revolution, which is still in full flight), while a welcome one for traditionalists, is alarming for progressives like Coontz.

Besides, she says, it is not something evident in Europe, where surveys show support for gender equality continuing to rise among all age groups, and "where substantial public investments in affordable, high-quality childcare and paid leave for fathers and mothers are the norm."

Coontz is persuaded by evidence that "the decline in support for 'non-traditional' domestic arrangements stems from young people witnessing the difficulties experienced by parents in two earner families." But with work-family balance policies like those in Europe, she thinks, these difficulties would diminish and millennials may "grow into" egalitarian idealism, "creating the most egalitarian family arrangements yet."

But there's another possibility: that many young people have grown up in households that work well with "gender specialisation" and see that it can work for them too. Wilcox and Sturgeon observe:

"Since the 1990s, married mothers' labor force participation has stopped rising, the decline in the share of stay-at-home mothers has come to a halt and fathers have continued to serve as primary breadwinners in the clear majority of two-parent families."

Rather than being strictly "traditional", these families are likely to have a modified form of gender specialisation, with mothers who may work part-time, and breadwinner fathers who are more involved in the domestic tasks - doing a share which is fair but not equal. The writers say:

"In other words, despite all the changes in family life over the past half-century, most young adults have grown up in a world where two-parent families, at least, have a " neotraditional " character. Thus, rather than embrace a '70s-style feminism where everything is supposed to be split 50-50 in the home, a growing share of young adults embrace an ethic closer to matching two-parent families as they really are in 21st century America: That is, millennials may take a more favorable view of gender specialization in the family because it remains quite common in their own experience and, in an era of choice feminism, less problematic."

Might it turn out that "gender equality" is an ideological shibboleth that few people really care about in practice? Or, to put the question differently, is there a better term to describe the equal value of men's and women's roles even thought they are different in many respects? Complementarity? Anyone?