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.