Millennials are often credited with ushering in an era of progressive social change – forming the core support of social movements from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to Me Too. But as this generation ages out of their post-grad years into middle age, those alleged progressive ideals don’t always translate into practice.
Take the millennial marriage – while some studies show that both millennial men and millennial women support egalitarian views of gender roles, i.e. a more equitable division of work and family responsibilities, 2020 exposed just how often millennials in heterosexual relationships fall into ‘traditional’ gender roles, where women are tasked with the lion’s share of household and care responsibilities at the expense of their own professional ambitions.
According to an August 2020 report, millennial mothers were nearly three times more likely than millennial fathers to report being unable to work due to a school or child care closure during the pandemic.
And in September 2020, as parents of young children were pulled between the demands of their own work and meeting the demands of new pandemic schooling procedures, it was 865,000 women who were pushed out of the US workforce – four times the rate of men.
Even when they take on the role of financial breadwinners, women are often still responsible for a far greater share of child care and household labor. And research finds that male stress levels rise when female partners earn more than 40 percent of the household income.
In other words, despite their stated values or best intentions, millennials in heterosexual relationships fall back on traditional gender roles more than expected.
The consequences of which are reflected more broadly in measures of gender equity, like the pandemic decline of women in the workforce and the persistent gender pay gap.
Among younger millennials and gen Z, there is some initial evidence that the outlook is trending even more traditional.
According to a 2017 report from sociologists Joanna Pepin and David Cotter, young adults are actually more likely to embrace traditional attitudes about male breadwinning, female homemaking and male authority in the home.
Studying surveys of high school seniors’ attitudes about gender, work and family over the course of nearly 40 years, they found that the view that “it is better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family” has grown among younger generations – particularly among young men. “What had been a trend toward equality stopped or even reversed in the mid-1990s,” conclude Pepin and Cotter.
What has grown more progressive over time is the belief that men and women should have equal employment opportunities.
So while younger generations of men may have embraced gender equality when it comes to paid work (at least in theory), the research finds that these attitudes rarely extend to household and child care responsibilities.
Researchers hypothesize that the greater acceptance of women’s equality at work represents a shift in economic realities as more households rely on two incomes to meet essential needs, as opposed to a greater acceptance of gender equality. This attitudinal shift allows men in heterosexual relationships to benefit from a second household income without significantly changing their household role or responsibility.
But what the data makes clear, is that gender equality in the paid workplace cannot be put into practice without a corresponding shift to a more equitable distribution of unpaid household labor and care responsibilities.
In the words of sociologist David Cotter per The New York Times, “At home, men are more resistant to that change because it really means surrendering privilege. This way, they don’t have to do more laundry.”
Other explanations for why egalitarian ideals collapse under the weight of entrenched gender stereotypes range from biased workplace practices and structures to the rise in intensive parenting to gendered expectations in heterosexual relationships to the continued absence of public policies like paid parental leave and affordable childcare.
The disconnect between stated ideals and practical realities have already borne out for previous generations. For example, in a study of Harvard Business School alumni, women expected their careers would be considered as important as their spouses and that they would share child care responsibilities equally. But in practice, women were more likely to be tasked with a greater share of care responsibilities while their male partner’s careers were more likely to take precedence.
And without meaningful systemic interventions, it’s unlikely millennials, gen Z or even gen alpha, will be able to realize more equal heterosexual relationships, even with the most egalitarian intentions.
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