Back to the ’50s? Should Men Be in Charge at Home?


American teens have no problem with gender equality in the workplace, but home life is a different story.

A new report released today (March 31) by the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) finds that modern high school seniors increasingly believe that everyone is better off if the man is the achiever outside the home while the woman takes care of domestic duties. In 1992, 58 percent of high school seniors disagreed that male-breadwinner arrangements were best. By 2014, the most recent year that survey data are available, that number had slipped to 42 percent.

“It’s been a steady reversal,” said study co-author Joanna Pepin, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland.

The findings reveal a complicated approach toward gender among the youngest millennials. They are based on repeated surveys of each year’s high school seniors called the Monitoring the Future Project. Each year since 1975, a sample of seniors has answered the same questions, allowing comparisons between age cohorts.

Since the 1970s, large majorities of high school seniors have supported egalitarian workplaces: In 1976, 82 percent of seniors said women should be considered just as seriously as men in executive jobs and in politics. By 1994, agreement with that belief hit 91 percent, where it has stayed strong. Likewise, agreement that women should have the same job opportunities as men started at 76 percent in 1976 and rose to 89 percent by 1994, staying stable thereafter. Attitudes toward working mothers have also steadily improved.

And yet, when asked about the domestic sphere, high school seniors became more egalitarian between 1976 and 1994 — and then started to slide in the other direction. In the same way as acceptance of the male-breadwinner model re-emerged after 1994, so did the notion of men as the head of the family. In 1976, 59 percent of high school seniors disagreed that men should make all the important decisions in the family. That disagreement peaked at 71 percent in 1994 and steadily eroded to 63 percent by 2014.

“We were really surprised to see this,” Pepin told Live Science, because youth are typically thought of as more progressive than their elders.

Nika Fate-Dixon, a researcher at the Evergreen State College in Washington, analyzed data in an accompanying report for the Council on Contemporary Families and found that the picture is complex among 18-to-25-year-olds as well. Another long-running questionnaire, the General Social Survey, asks adults some of the same questions as youth are asked in the Monitoring the Future surveys. Since 1997, adults of all ages have increasingly disagreed that male-breadwinner families are best (70 percent of all adult women now disagree with that statement, as well as nearly 70 percent of men), that study showed.

However, when age was considered, the scientists found that 18-to-25-year-olds have similar ambivalence about gender roles as high school seniors, with some declines in positive attitudes toward mothers working outside the home. In addition, the percentage of people in this age group disagreeing that male breadwinners are best declined from 84 percent in 1994 to 75 percent in 2014.

Much of the declining interest in gender egalitarianism at home came from men in the 18-to-25-year-old surveys, Fate-Dixon said. That wasn’t the case for the high school seniors, though: Men have always been a bit less supportive than women of egalitarianism, but that gap hasn’t grown, Pepin and co-author David Cotter of Union College in New York reported. Likewise, black youth have always been more egalitarian than white youth, but support has declined similarly among all races.

Pepin and Cotter suspect that young millennials have landed on an approach to gender that they call “egalitarian essentialism.” The schism between egalitarianism in public life and traditionalism in private seems to suggest that youth believe men and women should be treated equally, but that their essential natures are inherently different from one another, Pepin said.

Dan Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Utah who wrote a response to Pepin and Cotter’s report for the CCF, called this attitude the “supermom strategy.”

“If you want to work, fine, but you can’t skirt these traditional responsibilities at home,” Carlson said, describing how youth accept working women if they’re also taking on the brunt of domestic chores. Carlson argues that the root of these beliefs may be lack of supportive policies for families in the United States. High school seniors may see their parents struggling to achieve egalitarian relationships in an environment where paid maternity leave is rare and paid paternity leave is even rarer. A Pew Research Survey released March 23 found that only 14 percent of civilian workers in the United States had access to paid family leave. A second Pew study released March 27 found that of men who had taken parental leave (paid or unpaid) in the past two years, the median length of leave was one week (compared with 11 weeks for mothers).

“A lot of couples are forced into conventional arrangements” by the high cost of child care and lack of paid leave, Carlson told Live Science. “It would seem that children are taking cues from their parents in this regard and saying, ‘Maybe a traditional setup at home is just better for everybody as opposed to trying to fight this tide.'”

Carlson’s earlier research has also found that while many couples would prefer egalitarian relationships, a lot of working-class couples are seeing declines in men’s employment opportunities and are being forced into female-breadwinner roles that they don’t necessarily prefer.

“We’re finding that families are having a hard time adapting to that,” Carlson said.

Pepin agreed that lack of family support is “definitely not helping” to change gender attitudes. But economic pressure and workplace problems probably don’t explain the whole decline in support of egalitarianism, she said. If working-class youth see their fathers struggling to pay the bills alone, she said, they might be more likely to value wages brought in by their mothers. Also, egalitarian relationships are valued by couples (a 2016 Pew Research Survey found that 56 percent say sharing chores is important to a successful marriage), and sociologists have found that egalitarian couples have the highest relationship satisfaction, Pepin said.

“Even though it’s hard [to be egalitarian], it’s getting easier,” she said. “That is hard to reconcile” with backsliding egalitarianism among youth.

Even as they struggle to unravel why today’s youth might not support gender equality at home and at work, sociologists aren’t sure whether these attitudes will change with time. Today’s high school seniors are much further from marriage and childbearing than the high school seniors of 1976, Carlson said — many might not marry for a decade or more. It’s possible that their attitudes might change as they move through life.