We know quite a lot, statistically, about Millennials, the up and coming young adult generation. Those who are employed are more likely than any previous generation to have a college degree. And yet, they are also more likely to live with their parents for longer stretches as adults. The Pew Research Center Fact Tank shows that 15 percent of Millennials live at home between the ages of 25 and 35, far more than generations before them. Their moving home continued even as the unemployment rate decreased, although those without a college degree are far more likely to boomerang home to their parents than are their college educated peers. Millennials appear to be less likely to move around the country to follow job opportunities, perhaps because so many jobs no longer carry the wages and benefits that would justify relocation. One trend very clear is that Millennials are far more likely to lean Democratic than any other generation. These left-leaning college educated young adults, some slow to fly away from the nest, are now the largest generation in America. And among women, Millennials are most likely to see the advantages men have over women, over half of them think men have it easier, far more than any previous generation. And twice as many women than men report having been sexually harassed at work, making this younger generation as aware of women’s victimization as any other. Their mothers’ feminism hardly ended women’s problems in the workforce.
This is what we know from nationally representative statistics. But I wanted to know more, particularly about how college educated Millennials, our future leaders, felt about gender politics, not only in the workforce but how they experienced sex-based opportunities and constraints in their own lives. My colleagues and students and I interviewed 116 Millennials. Our sample was minority majority, with most of the respondents having been raised in working class, many in immigrant households. Most were now in college or recent college graduates. In addition to recruiting a sample with much race and ethnic diversity, we also recruited a gender diverse sample, including those who rejected the gender binary entirely (some of whom identify as genderqueer) and some transgender young people. We asked these people to tell us their life history, with a specific focus on their experiences where gender was particularly salient. In the process, we sought to explore whether this new generation will change the face of gender politics at home or at work.
The answer is both yes, and no. We could identify no one-size-fits-all generational experience. What we did find was a complicated gender structure that some Millennials endorsed, some resisted, others rebelled against, and that left many simply confused. America continues to be a society with incredible religious diversity, and in my interviews, I quickly noticed that the men and women who were proud of their being girly girls and tough guys, wanted others in their social networks to follow sex-based traditions, and endorsed world views where men and women should have different opportunities and constraints were often raised in literalist faiths where the religious text was taken as gospel, and not metaphorical. These true believers in a traditional gender structure came from many faiths, Evangelical Christian, orthodox Jew, Greek Orthodox, and Muslim. What they shared was a belief that god intended men and women to be complementary, not with equal opportunities to all social roles. These were young adults following in their parents’ footsteps, conserving the past for the future. In our sample, we talked to many of these young traditionalists, but in a national sample, they would be a small minority. Still, they exist and complicate any picture of Millennials as movers and shakers of tradition.
But then, of course, many Millennials are also critical of sexual inequality. In our research, we identified two different patterns among young people with these attitudes. Some are innovators who simply ignore and reject any rules that apply only to women or men. They are proud to integrate aspects of masculinity and femininity, toughness and caring, into their own identities, reject expectations that force them into sex-specific roles, and want women and men’s lives converge so that everyone has the rights and opportunity to share the work of caring for others, and earning a living. What seems new in this generation is that this feminism isn’t a women’s only movement. These innovators are men as well as women. But some of those we interviewed went far beyond simply rejecting sexism, they rejected gender categories themselves, particularly the way social norms require us to present our bodies. These rebels reject the need for the category of woman or man. Some use the language of genderqueer, others simply say they are between the binary. A few are comfortable with remaining women but present themselves so androgynously as to be commonly presumed to be male. All reject the notion that women and men need to carry their bodies differently, or dress distinctly. These rebels have a tough time in everyday life. If you do not fit easily into a gender binary, you find yourself an outsider everywhere you turn, with no obvious restroom, no clothing designed for your anatomy, and no box to check on many surveys. While people with these problems are no doubt a very small proportion of American Millennials, they are having a tremendous cultural and political impact, with both California and Oregon now allowing people to choose a gender category other than woman or man. These new laws provide more accurate identifications for genderqueer Millennials, as well as for intersex people. Rebels may be small in number but are clearly re-shaping cultural ideas about gender identity.
Of course, many of the young adults we interviewed were not so easily categorized. I call them straddlers because they have one foot in traditionalism and one in gender criticism. It’s hard to know if this inconsistency is a moment in the lifecycle or will characterize their adult lives. After all, being a young adult today is confusing, and psychologists have labeled this stage of life emerging adulthood. It is indeed a long and winding road, according to Jeffrey Arnett, from the late teens through the twenties to arrive at an adult identity and lifestyle. Many of the young people we interviewed held inconsistent their ideas about themselves, their expectations for others, and how society should operate. They are as confused, and as in transition, as is the gender structure itself.
Millennials are a diverse group. When it comes to the gender structure, I identified four categories, traditionals, innovators, rebels, and straddlers, of Millennials with very different orientations. Does nothing, then, make this generation distinctive? Yes, some patterns do indeed provide a generational marker that transcends their differences. All these Millennials talked of women as employed workers whether they were mothers or not. The belief that the world of work and politics is for men, and the hearth and home the sole province of women is a 20th Century memory that now sits in the dustbin of history. Even women that endorse more freedom for men than women expect and desire to spend most of their adult lives in the labor force. But beyond the changing expectations for women’s lives, my research suggests the most defining feature of Millennials is their gender and sexual libertarianism. Whatever they choose for themselves, they have no desire to impose their choices on anyone else. What this means for America is that as the Millennials become the largest voting block, they are unlikely to cast their ballots for laws that require anyone to become just like them when it comes to gender or sexuality. And in that way, the Millennials may just take us to a more open and society.
Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University in the UK. She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families.