The notion that each generation is a bit more supportive of gender equality than the previous one is being challenged by new research that finds an increasing number of high school seniors think men and women should have equal opportunities in the workplace and in politics, but at home they should follow more traditional roles.
The findings are part of the Gender and Millennials Online Symposium by the Council on Contemporary Families. The symposium includes several briefing papers on aspects of gender equality.
In the symposium's centerpiece, University of Maryland sociologist and doctoral candidate Joanna Pepin and David Cotter, chairman of the sociology department at Union College, analyzed 40 years of surveys and found that nearly 90 percent of every group of high school seniors since the 1990s has said women should have the same opportunities in politics and business as men.
The sentiment is different regarding family life. In 1994, 58 percent disagreed that the best family model was one based on "male breadwinner-female homemaker construct" — a number that dropped to 42 percent in 2014, the most recent year for which complete data is available.
"The crux of the symposium is this observation that young people, when it comes to attitudes about gender in the home, are becoming a little more conventional in their thinking," said Daniel Carlson, an assistant professor of family, health and policy at the University of Utah, who wrote one of the papers. "From the '70s until the 2000s, they were progressive in terms of men's and women's roles at home, who has the authority and how to split child care and housework. That's retreating a bit."
The report notes that, overall, high school seniors still support the idea that men and women can shape their family lives the way they want, but the share who feel conventional roles work best is growing.
A youthful view
The survey focused on youths because "their values are important for predicting future trends," wrote Pepin and Cotter. "Youths' attitudes capture changing cultural ideals that are less likely to have been reconciled with adult realities, such as unpaid maternity leave and the expenses of child care, making their opinions of gender unique views from below."
Questions about family attitudes boiled down to, Do you think it's better if a man is the "achiever" and the woman takes care of the home? And are men and women different? Pepin said. A somewhat higher proportion of youths indicated that men should make the important decisions. Although it was not a majority — about 63 percent disagreed — it's a significant drop from the 71 percent who disagreed in 1994.
And nearly 6 in 10 seniors said the man-achiever/woman-homemaker model makes the best family, Pepin said.
"Although Americans now overwhelmingly agree that society has no right to deny opportunities to individuals on the basis of their sex, many are uncomfortable with the idea that men and women can be interchangeable in the tasks they perform at home and at work," wrote Stephanie Coontz, CCF director of research and education, and a history professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, in a summary of all the briefing papers.
Pepin and Cotter call the resulting ideology "egalitarian essentialism," which Pepin describes as "the belief that men and women are unique but equal." Coontz described it as a hybrid ideology that combines commitment to equal opportunity with the belief that men and women typically choose different opportunities because each gender is naturally better suited to certain roles. She said egalitarian essentialism suggests as long as people get to decide for themselves if they work and whether their family roles are conventional or not, it's basically fine. They'll do what's right for them.
More questions than answers
Pepin said the findings are hard to explain, given research that shows "couples who have a more equal relationship are happier, healthier and more stable." And the fact that fathers are spending more time with their kids while doing less to help out around the house is a "potential argument against our cultural explanation," she added.
Carlson agreed it's a puzzle. "We don't really see much evidence that would suggest there should be some kind of reversion here." He described the idea that it's OK to be equal in the public sphere but at home women do the work and men have authority as "cognitively dissonant."
Family roles and their results have been evolving. Egalitarian roles used to be associated with relationship conflict and couples were less likely to be happy if women had more education. That has changed in the last 20 years. Until the 1990s, if a woman earned more, couples were more likely to divorce, also no longer true. Now, couples who divide household chores and child-rearing jobs report having the best marriage and sexual satisfaction, far different than in previous decades. Recent research suggests sharing financial and family responsibilities is crucial for marital success.
Carlson said when men are primarily responsible for the household, neither men nor women are happy about it or consider it fair. "It seems plausible that teens who see their parents or neighbors react negatively to such counter-conventional gendered arrangements may conclude that traditional arrangements with a man as head of the household are better," he said.
This crop of polled teens may also have reacted to the recession, Coontz said. "They may have seen their parents have real uncomfortable struggles over this, especially during the years leading to 2014, with the housing crisis and the Great Recession, so they may be looking for simple answers."
What matters most for marital success is that however a couple decides to divide their tasks, they feel like a team and there's a sense of fairness, said Carlson, who fears that without supportive public policies, couples will eschew the equality that research "now shows to be best for most relationships."
Nothing is set in stone, he adds. These seniors, unlike some in other decades, have years to change their minds before they start deciding what their own roles in a family will be like. Most won't marry for an average of close to 10 more years.
If they follow more recent trends among millennials, the surveyed youths may start a family or cohabit, waiting to marry until they have achieved financial stability, if they choose to marry at all.
Experts say marriage is often now a "capstone" rather than a cornerstone of launching into adulthood. But millennials are a big group, and they're not all the same. Their cohort doesn't even have firm beginning and end dates, though early 1980s to early 2000s are generally used to identify them, making them teens to mid-30s.