It might seem like each generation becomes more progressive than the last, but an interesting twist emerged when researchers analyzed new data on young people for the Council on Contemporary Families’ 2017 Gender and Millennials Symposium in the spring: Are young adults getting more traditional?
Let’s take a look at the landscape, starting with the work of sociologist David Cotter and researcher Joanna Pepin, who took data from surveys of high school seniors conducted over 40 years. In the latest set, from 2014, young adults seem to support equal opportunities in the workplace for men and women — much like past generations. However, when we take a turn to home-life dynamics, things take a surprising turn.
When 1976 survey takers were asked, ‘It is usually better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family?,’ only about 30 percent of high school seniors took issue with the idea. By 1994, that number rose sharply to 58 percent. By 2014, there was suddenly a large dip: Only 42 percent of young adults opposed the male breadwinner–female homemaker setup as best, a decline of 16 percentage points over 20 years.
To add another layer to the data, a majority of the young survey takers (59 percent) disagreed with the statement that ‘the husband should make all the important decisions in the family’ back in 1976. This number jumped to 71 percent by 1994, but fell again to 63 percent by 2014.
In a recent paper analyzing a different data set, researchers also found that 84 percent of young people 18 to 25 disagreed that male breadwinner–female homemaker roles were superior to other family dynamics, whereas only 75 percent disagreed in 2014. “Here the decline was especially dramatic in the case of young men, who went from 83 percent disagreeing in 1994 to only 55 percent disagreeing in 2014, a drop of 28 points over the past 20 years,” the authors write.
Why the Retro Backslide?
Some may abhor what seems to be happening here; others may endorse it. I don’t know. What I do know is that the interplay of old gender roles and new home-life setups have made for a complex discussion on relationship dynamics between the sexes. With equality coming up in conversation more often than ever (and rightly so), it is interesting to see data suggest millennials might be backpedaling toward the 1950s.
The question is why. Although no one can be totally sure, it’s possible that emerging adults don’t think egalitarianism works as well as it should. In a recent New York Times article, historian Stephanie Coontz hypothesized some reasons for the unexpected attitude shift. Perhaps, she writes, “young people witnessing the difficulties experienced by parents in two-earner families” has factored into a desire for that traditional breadwinner–homemaker family dynamic.
After all, it’s not easy to create a dynamic in which everything is evenly split in heterosexual households — breadwinning, childcare, household chores — especially when women are carrying children and gendered expectations are ingrained.
While young women are also trending traditional, as Coontz notes, there is also evidence for a “gender gap” in how men and women want to approach home life. Young men “have consistently been less egalitarian than young women,” according to Pepin and Cotter.
Some, like political scientist Dan Cassino, think modern young men’s sharp swing toward conservative attitudes might “reflect an attempt to compensate for men’s loss of dominance in the work world.” We are entering a time where boys and young men are increasingly “falling behind” their female peers. For the first time ever, for instance, more women than men hold bachelor degrees. This phenomenon between the sexes has been well documented in research and in news reports.
Ultimately, it’s tough to say how modern messages and old precedents take hold in each person. But the growing gap between men and women is likely felt, spurring potential results like those found in the new studies.
How Are Young People, Especially Men, Feeling About Relationships?
None of these study results shocked me; most young people I’ve talked to have mixed feelings about the current culture, relationships and family life. I recently discussed those attitudes with a group of more than 100 young men and women, primarily in the millennial age range, for a forthcoming book on relationships.
The situation is perhaps more complex for men, who once held positions of power that are gradually being absorbed by women. On the whole, young men believe women deserve equal opportunities. They consider themselves feminists, and cheer the accomplishments of their sisters, female friends and girlfriends. But they also struggle with the recent changes in the cultural landscape, where women are starting to flood the educational arena and the working world. Tough feelings can simmer just below the surface.
One mid-20s guy proclaimed that hoards of people have seemingly forgot that “men have fragile egos.” Another 30-something professed that his type was “smart, ambitious” women, with the caveat that he couldn’t be with a woman “who obliterated” his ego by surpassing his success. He could not see himself as a stay-at-home dad, couldn’t imagine life in which he was not the primary breadwinner and insisted “a whole book could be written on how ego affects male decision making.” By and large, people are driven to choose relationship and family setups that make them feel comfortable.
More than ego might play into men’s traditional desires, though. Part of it might be nostalgia. One man in his late 20s lamented a loss of “good feminine qualities,” like nurturing and care taking, as feminism and egalitarianism has taken center stage in current culture. As another mid-20s guy explained to me, a given relationship is sort of like two people filling buckets.
Theoretically, he said, you can have as many buckets as you want — career, travel, kids, sex, chores — but you only get 100 energy points per person to fill all those 100-point buckets. If both are working strenuously on a career, there will be a lot of spillover. Who will be filling the life buckets? Traditionally, that role has gone to women, and it can be difficult for some guys to imagine another way. (From an economist’s perspective, the person with the primary career and income would more likely secure greater bargaining power in the relationship, which determines how major decisions are made.)
New numbers from the latest General Social Survey show men aren’t the only drivers of this new wave of traditionalism, though. Perhaps women are becoming more aware of their male peers’ traditional desires — and responding in kind in order to secure a relationship. In fact, a recent study from Harvard researchers showed single women in a top MBA program downplayed their career ambition in front of men “to avoid signaling undesirable personality traits in the marriage market.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
If these new studies tell us anything, it’s that the current generation has a lot of feelings to unpack surrounding gender roles, new relationship dynamics, ingrained expectations, and equality between the sexes. The more we talk about what’s going on, the more we can communicate our way to healthy modern relationships, in which all parties are satisfied.
Currently, a relationship or family setup can look like … well, just about anything. But as the Paradox of Choice has taught us, more options don’t necessarily make us happier human beings. At the end of the day, most millennials are idealists to the core. They want the best of everything in life — and usually that comes down to creating a well-balanced life. You can obtain that balance in many ways, and there’s likely no one right fit for everyone.
The best strategy is to find a person with whom you connect and share the same values. From there, with tons of communication, you can work to create a dynamic with a balance of power that’s unique to you as a couple. If that open negotiation doesn’t happen openly between two people merging two separate careers, then resentment and negativity could be right around the corner.
Jenna Birch is a journalist, dating coach, and author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column appears on Yahoo every Friday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to email@example.com with “YAHOO QUESTION” in the subject line.
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