What is the stock female role model of 2017? Career-woman? Housewife? Hyper-attentive mother? For some, the answer is just, "Yes." The average lady millennial is a multitasker who's bringing home the bacon, preparing it, and then cutting it up into bite-sized pieces.
Back in March, the New York Times ran a story by Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, asking, "Do Millennial Men Want Stay-at-Home Wives?" The article and its cited findings on how millennials are allegedly more supportive of traditional gender roles in the home than the young people of 20 years ago spawned many clicky headline siblings. See these pieces in Vogue, Fortune, Quartz, Time, and Scatterplot.
If you read them all, your head may hurt a little (mine did) and you'll notice some ostensible contradictions, though it's helpful to consider that housewife— defined as "a married woman whose main occupation is caring for her family, managing household affairs, and doing housework"—is not synonymous with stay-at-home wife. Many women run their homes, and maintain another full-time career.
Still, my threefold interpretation of the report was that, compared to two decades ago, a significantly larger number of men AND women:
- support women in the workforce. Hooray!
- believe women should be responsible for home upkeep. Wait, that doesn't seem...
- agree that men should have final say on household decisions. Say whaaaat now?
Could this possibly be the case? Has there really been an increase in women who think they have to do it all, only to ultimately still submit to a man's authority? In my best Rebecca Bunch impression: "The situation's a lot more nuanced than that."
"These polls are very confusing," Coontz (thankfully) concurred, and noted that the 2014 and 2016 General Social Surveys reporting these traditionalism claims are particularly volatile due to their small sample sizes. But she affirmed that, as the NYT update to the story reports, while most young people disagree with the assertion that male-breadwinner families are superior, there's a confirmed rise in millennials who agreed with the statement: "It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family," and that spike shows up for both sexes.
"Women from age 18 to 29 are more likely to call themselves feminists than any other age group," says Coontz, "But we still saw an uptick. We have to push back against this idealization that 'millennials are going to save us from ourselves.' We shouldn't assume that all millennials are going in the same direction, and each generation is going to get more supportive of the women’s movement than the last."
However, Coontz also cautioned against worrying that these results signal a complete reversal of the gender revolution, a sentiment that makes sense alongside findings from Joanna Pepin, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland, and Union College Professor of Sociology David Cotter, whose studies show that millennial men and women increasingly endorse women's equality at work and are less likely to believe that children suffer if mothers work outside the home.
Why then, do we have this uprising of self-ordained superwomen allegedly burdening themselves with work and home responsibilities while still relying on husbands to direct their flight plans?
Two rather unfortunate explanations from Daniel Carlson, researcher/professor at the University of Utah, and Fairleigh Dickinson University researcher/professor Dan Cassino, respectively, are that the recession has caused young people to grow up witnessing difficulties experienced by two-earner families and prompted speculation that a "return to the old ways" might be preferable, and that men have begun demanding leadership in home life to compensate for their loss of dominance in the work world.
And Coontz points out: "A good quarter of the convergence of wages is because of men’s declining real wages, not women’s increasing. And, the increase in reliance on women’s wages in households is not because there’s this new professional group of women appearing and succeeding, but because men have been laid off."
Pepin wonders if it was a simple matter of wording. "The questions that we saw the reversal on specifically mentioned men’s roles," she says. "It’s easy to think about why women wanted to enter the labor force that gives them access to the market world and to money, but what is the immediate, obvious incentive for men to change their behavior in families?"
Finally, my female compatriots, this sudden backpedal in our senses of egalitarianism—the idea that men and women should share decision-making, bread-winning, and child-rearing—might be partly our fault...
"Women often anticipate more of a threat than men actually end up feeling," says Coontz. "Opponents of feminism say men will never accept egalitarian relationships because men will be threatened. But I have a lot of confidence in a man's ability to appreciate a partner who brings things to the table and doesn't wait for him to do everything." While Coontz isn't surprised about initial reactions, particularly from young women to the sort of trouble Cassino referenced above, including "buoying up their husband's ego by giving in or allowing him to feel dominant," she maintains that women should recognize men are stronger than we give them credit for. In fact, women earning more or having more education is no longer a risk-factor for divorce.
"I don't think anybody should try to be a superwoman," says Coontz, "But the alternative is not going back to the 1950s arrangement, because, women—we've tried that before. That's what created the women's movement. Turned out that women dreamed of being swept off their feet by a strong man who would provide for them—and then they didn't like it."
Then again, maybe it's not even our fault that it's possibly our fault (ha). Women experience decades of romantic media socializing us to be people-pleasers, all the while perpetuating the idea that you’ve got to play dumb to catch a man. At the same time, modern "enlightened" society piles on the opposite pressure for women to be just as AGGRESSIVE and STRONG as their male counterparts, making it harder and harder for women not to work outside the home.
"There's been a steady increase in economic vulnerability of single-earner families," Coontz says. "Women are going back to work earlier after having kids, and working more hours than ever before." Plus, we're getting little to no back-up from American work and social policies. "I'd say they were Neanderthal, but it turns out Neanderthals were better at caregiving than we are," jokes Coontz.
And the lack of aid for work-family balance attacks men just as harshly as women. "The critically important thing is to know that men also want to take family leave, but just as we have to free women from our stigma that we have to do it all, we have to free men from the stigma that they cannot try to do it all," Coontz says. Research shows that while employers will pass over hiring and promoting pregnant women with the assumption that they will drop commitments at work to reorient themselves around family, the opposite happens for pending fathers. "They assume a man will become a more dedicated employee—re-doubling his work hours and putting shoulder to the grindstone to provide for his family and allow his wife to stay home," says Coontz. "What's overlooked is that as soon as the man indicates that’s not true—that he intends to prioritize family equally—he's penalized. There are studies that show he's bullied at work, bad-mouthed, and less likely to get promotions and raises."
Alternatively, we have to remember that the youngsters polled are pretty far removed from the reality of the marriage dynamics that saturated their parents' or grandparents' era. The average age to wed is a lot older nowadays, so millennials have no memory of what it's actually like to live in a father-knows-best family. And though the media landscape is improving in terms of empowered female representation, Coontz says there's still an abundance of images and messages declaring to millennial men and women that powerful people are by definition male. "They still see men in charge throughout the polity and the economy, and so the [egalitarian] idea is still a little strange to them."
The good news: We've seen that in older generations (those in their 30s through 50s who grew up less supportive of the idea that men and women were equally competent in the work and political worlds) people change their minds as as they gain experience with women in leadership roles. "It would just seem that every generation has to make these discoveries anew," says Coontz. "In practice, traditionalism is not what most women want."
After reading the Council on Contemporary Families's symposium summation article aptly titled, "Gender, Politics, and Millennials? Research to sort out a hot mess," I asked Coontz and Pepin what we have sorted. What should brides take away from these conclusions when establishing their own home/work balances with their partners?
"Really, what we know that research shows is that couples who are best friends are the happiest," says Pepin. Even though only about a third of the pairs Carlson studied practiced egalitarian relationships, they reported higher relationship and sexual satisfaction—and more sex in general.
"Women no longer feel that there are things they can’t do or shouldn’t do because they are female," says Coontz, explaining that young women as a whole have much higher professional expectations of themselves, and their partners, and they expect their careers will take equal precedence in the family. They also expect their husbands will participate in childcare and housework. A Pew poll from last year found that more than half of U.S. married adults agreed a successful marriage required sharing of chores, and men were even more likely than women to have this opinion. So, women, are we holding ourselves back?
"There’s overwhelming evidence that men and women have a different trajectory in marriage," says Coontz. "Women go in excited, while even men in love go in with a sense of lost independence. Over time, men get more content with marriage, and women get less. Stuff gets old after awhile."
Y'all, are you asking your significant others to pick up socks a million times, while simultaneously bending over to grab the pair yourself? "They're going to be like, 'Wow. My socks keep getting picked up. This is nice,' " says Coontz. "Wives should come in aware of discomforts, not papering them over, and asking for the change they want."
Now let's talk about that ask. Hinting is not asking. "Women are still socialized not to give what sound like 'demands,' " says Coontz. "Instead a woman will hint and hint and hint until she's so angry she's fallen out of love." It’s the modern-day equivalent of putting song lyrics in your AIM profiles. Sorry, ladies, but our lovers still haven't figured out that No Doubt song was about them. "Men aren't mind readers," says Coontz. "They're often blindsided when, instead of asking early for the change she wants, their wives end up asking for divorce."
We've also got to stop pre-sacrificing in our heads without communicating. "Women make determinations based on what they think their partner would want, and then the guy doesn't know so he appears to take for granted that decision," says Coontz. "He's thinking, 'I'm just going along with what she did.' It leads to terrible misunderstandings where, after a while, the burden of those unspoken and consequently unacknowledged compromises begin to bother a woman. She thinks, 'Oh, I’m always the one who makes concessions.' And he thinks, “Why didn’t you ever tell me?' ”
Pepin adds, "Today, there’s not a normative standard for what relationships look like in families. It’s important for people to be talking about how they envision their future lives together. Everything has to be negotiated, and people need to be on the same page about what they want."
As Coontz says in her final bit of advice for what makes a happy home: "We as women ought to have high expectations of our partners as well as ourselves. They can rise to this, and they will rise to it if we’re clear about what we need, and we ask—nicely, but still we ask.