Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Stephanie Coontz titled “Do Millennial Men Want Stay-at-Home Wives?” In it, Coontz highlights research I co-authored with David Cotter which is featured in a set of reports by the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF). Based on nationally representative survey data of high school seniors (Monitoring the Future), we show that youths’ attitudes about gender in families became more progressive from the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s, after which the trend reversed course.
"Garbage Millennial Men" Is Not the Story
Although the New York Times used a click-bait title for the op-ed, the main story is not that millennial men are becoming more traditional in their gender attitudes at a greater rate than millennial women. A paper included in CCF’s online symposium used data from the General Social Survey to investigate 18-25 year olds’ beliefs about male breadwinner/female homemaker arrangements, which Coontz reviews in her New York Times op-ed. This data showed a slight divergence in young men’s and women’s beliefs about gender in families. Concerns were raised that the sample sizes were small, and then data released this week from the 2016 survey – after Coontz’s piece went to press – show the opposite pattern. Emily Beam provided a nice overview of this discussion. Unfortunately, her explanation is now getting misinterpreted too, such as in this piece in Fortune, declaring “Relax, Millennial Men Don’t Actually Want to Keep Women in the Kitchen.”
The take-away from our research of high school seniors’ attitudes is that millennial men and women are mostly in agreement about gender dynamics in families, and they are less progressive than we thought – and less progressive than they were two decades ago. The surprising trend in youths’ attitudes about gender in families is not that young men hold more conventional beliefs than young women, but that both men and women are espousing less egalitarian beliefs than before. Cotter and I describe the trend, presented below, in our response paper in the CCF symposium.
Youth are Not Questioning Mothers’ Employment
The second misinterpretation from our findings is that youth do not support women’s and mothers’ employment. The comment section of the New York Times article shows people rehashing the “mommy wars” debate – do people prefer a stay-at-home mother arrangement or a dual-earner partnership. This is understandable given the New York Times headline and our emphasis on the increasing agreement that the male breadwinner/female homemaker model is best for everyone. However, Monitoring the Future data show a much more complicated story. In fact, results show young men and women increasingly support women’s equality at work and are less likely to believe mothers’ employment harms children.
We argue that these seemingly contradictory attitudes are evidence of beliefs in “egalitarian essentialism” – pairing beliefs that men and women are inherently different with commitment to equal opportunity.
If you want to dig deeper into our findings, please check out our working paper, available on SocArxiv.
This weekend was the first time I heard Meghan Trainor's new song "Dear Future Husband." Wow -- the lyrics of this song present a lot to analyze about changing attitudes on gender roles and marriage. There's a nod to some feminist attitudes, such as the presumption of women's employment and the assertion of the wife not doing all the cooking, but it's mostly a song that draws on feminine stereotypes and sexualized imagery. In many ways, the lyrics are a good example of egalitarian essentialism, a new cultural ideology which blends feminist attitudes and traditional gender roles.
Thinking maybe the song was satirical, I checked out the video. Unfortunately, this didn't resolve my confusion, as the video contains kitschy 1950s-era imagery and I wasn't certain it was, in fact, meant as a parody. Meghan Trainor has responded to the controversy regarding the song's sexist message; however, her response left a lot to be desired.
"Everyone's going to say something. I don't think it's sexist. I just wrote a song for my particular future husband out there, wherever he is. I'm just preparing him. Letting him know what's up."
The song itself provides much to analyze, but its reception is also interesting. The React Channel produced a video of young people analyzing the song lyrics. Their reactions to each of the lines offers insights into what young men and women are thinking about gender roles and marriage.
The young men initially seem to take stereotypical pronouncements about relationship dynamics as normal and acceptable, but the young women seem a bit more skeptical (lyrics are bolded in red):
Take me on a date; I deserve it, babe; And don't forget the flowers every anniversary
Young Man: "She probably works hard in the house...doing wife things. She totally deserves it."
You got that 9 to 5; but, baby, so do I; So don't be thinking I'll be home and baking apple pies
Young Man: "This lyric kind of throws me off. Because she says she'll be the perfect wife but if you want some apple pie than you just.....what? Go to McDonalds and get it?"
Young Woman: "I feel like that was the old-school view of a wife. They would just sit at home and bake and cook and clean."
You gotta know how to treat me like a lady; Even when I'm acting crazy; Tell me everything's alright
Young Man: "Women do get a little bonkers sometimes. And I think she's admitting that here."
Young Woman: "That's kind of messed up. That's not how a relationship should function."
Young Man: "That's a contradiction. 'I'm not going to be the stereotypical woman.' But now, 'I want you to treat me like the stereotype.'"
The young men sound conflicted about these stereotypical gender roles, but the young women are generally appalled. Notably, one young women exclaims that marriage is just not worth it if it involves these stereotypical gendered divisions of labor.
'Cause if you'll treat me right, I'll be the perfect wife; Buying groceries, Buy-buying what you need
Young Man: "Everyone has their own definition of a perfect wife."
Young Man: "I'll do servantry kinds of things is what it sounds like."
Young Woman: "That sounds so stereotypical. You know what, babe -- you do the groceries.....if that's what being a wife means, then f*** marriage!"
Yet, they all seem to react negatively to the wife holding more power in the relationship:
Make time for me; Don't leave me lonely; And know we'll never see your family more than mine
Young Man: "She's trying to wear all the pants in the relationship. This dude is not going to wear any pairs of pants."
Young Man: "If my significant other told me this, it would be over."
Young Woman: "This kind of shit pisses me off so bad."
In the end, most seemed to think this was not the kind of relationship for them:
Young Woman: "Dear Meghan Trainor. That is not the kind of love that is in any way shape or form, right."
As a sociologist studying romantic relationships and inequality, I find this cultural artifact incredibly fascinating. I'm currently working on a research project exploring race and gender differences in trends of young people's marital aspirations and preferred divisions of labor. I use data from Monitoring the Future, an annual survey given to a nationally representative group of American 12th grade students since 1976. I'm analyzing four indicators of marital attitudes, and a vignette measuring attitudes about potential work and family arrangements. If you're going to be at the Population Association of America's annual conference this week, come by Poster Session 1 (Thursday, April 30 / 8:00 AM - 10:00 AM) and see my poster. I'd love to discuss my findings with you and talk more about the sociology of this song!
Happy Election Day! There's been so much talk about Millennials this election season, I couldn't resit taking a quick look at trends in youth attitudes using data from Monitoring the Future, an annual survey of high school seniors' values, attitudes, and behaviors. I mean, the data was just sitting there on my laptop, taunting me.
There were two generalized questions on voting questions I identified:
Surprisingly (to me) less than 70% of high school seniors think voting has a major impact on this country. Over time, agreement rose in the early 1980s and then has declined and remained steady. Despite the seniors' skepticism, over 80% of twelfth graders plan to vote in an election. Although, the proportion of youth who plan to vote has also been trending downwards.
Just out of further curiosity, I took a quick look at differences by race and gender. The graphs are messy and would need some more work to really make sense of it, but they are included below if you are interested.
Whoa. It turns out a new trend has emerged. The promposal. It is apparently a fancy way of labeling the act of asking someone to prom. Making the internet rounds lately was an example of a promposal by a high school senior who asked his girlfriend to prom via a fake letter rescinding her acceptance to the University of South Carolina.
Never hearing of such a thing as a promposal, I decided to investigate. I started where all outstanding sociology graduate students do to conduct research. Wikipedia. Turns out, there is no Wikipedia entry for promposal. "How could this be?!" I asked myself. Undeterred, I turned to Google.
The first hint of the usage of the word promposal, according to Google, comes from the Canadian newspaper Ottawa Citizen, who apparently held a promposal contest. Unfortunately, the link provided leads to a "page not found" screen. The term makes a minor appearance in 2012 but seems to pick up traction in 2013. You can blame Huffington Post for reviving it and bringing it to the U.S. national stage. Regional interest has been mostly limited to Ottawa, Toronto, and New York, but given the widespread attention of the trend this year, it seems to be catching on elsewhere.
There are now tumblr pages, Pintrest pages, and even a Twitter handle (@ThePromposal) for documenting promposals. As far as I can tell, they seem to replicate the stereotypical courtship norms of dating and engagement proposals. One Huffington Post article calls attention to girls who are bucking the norms and asking their partners to the dance. However, this more gender flexible behavior is clearly not the norm, as evidenced in this statement: "With that said, here are some of our favorite #ladypromposals so far." Thus, promposals in general are assumed to be male initiated. Qualifications such as lady are used otherwise. By the way, if you go to Twitter and #ladypromposals, no tweets exist. On the other hand, #promposals is popular.
Despite gains in youth's attitudes about gender egaitarianism in relationships, promposals seem to evidence Ellen Lamont's findings (published in Gender and Society) that young women attempt to reconcile egalitarian ideology with conventional gendered courtship norms. While the promposal trend is still developing, how it reinforces or transforms gendered courtship norms remains to be seen.
Who wears the pants in the relationship? A metaphor that I, for one, could totally do without. But, no one asked me and this week Eonline and Taylor Swift used this tired metaphor to talk about Swift's dominance as a business woman but her desire to be equal in a relationship: "Taylor Swift may wear the pants in the music industry, but when it comes to relationships, the superstar doesn't like to take control."
While stating equality values is good, I'm not sure why it's a "confession" that she would like an equal in her relationship. It seems to me that most girls and women might say something to that affect these days, even if the reality is less than equal once they are actually partnered.
What seemed more confusing was Taylor's insistence that while she may be all powerful in her business, she certainly doesn't want to transfer that to her relationship. Why not? It's a great thing to not control your partner, but an equal partnership doesn't involve "handing over the reins."
"It's wonderful to hand over the reins to your boyfriend when you control so much of these big, high-pressure decisions, you know? That is a huge defining factor in who you choose to be with."
It is interesting to note that she feels like she has the power to hand something over in the first place. I guess that's a change. But, is it real, or is that an illusion?
And, what is it with the pants? Eonline quoted Taylor as stating, "If I feel too much like I'm wearing the pants, I start to feel uncomfortable and then we break up....relationships are the ultimate collaboration." What does that mean these days, to wear the pants? Rather than outdated metaphors, I'd be much more interested in hearing what Taylor thinks is an equal partnership. That would be a powerful message to send to her young fans. Instead, they're getting the advice that it's okay to be powerful and successful in business, but just make sure you're not too powerful in your relationship.