Look on Pinterest, on the front page of the newspaper, and even in our own hands as we scroll through social media feeds on our smartphones: the importance of our home objects is everywhere. I see bestselling books about how to make getting rid of our things (category by category, that is – preferably starting with those seven extra crates of shoes) joyful. I notice how there is a whole host of professions, self-help manuals, and even TV shows dedicated to dealing with the hoarding of home stuff. I see tragic reports of lead-poisoned water coming out of kitchen sinks and into cups that children drink from. I see commentary on how Millennials and Gen Xers don’t want their parents’ heirloom furniture (unless it is midcentury modern, that is). And I come across countless articles and concomitant comments articulating competing sides of the “should our kids have smartphones” debate.

As a sociologist who dabbles in anthropology, consumer studies, science and technology studies, and art and design research, I also see some important social patterns worth investigating that stem precisely from the aforementioned things. Namely:

Should we be minimalists or hoarders, especially since our stuff affects individual well-being, a family’s materialism, and even the environment? The stuff in our homes reflects what we’re wrestling with in terms of our values and our identities.

Which families have access to clean water? The stuff in our homes reflects what we’re wrestling with in terms of social inequalities.

Are our children (and us, for that matter) controlled by our objects? The stuff in our homes reflects what we’re wrestling with in terms of the power of objects over us, and the norms and rules in our everyday lives that we establish to deal with them.

Is all of this “stuff about stuff” about more than just psychological differences in tastes and lifestyles? The stuff in our homes reflects what we’re wrestling with in terms of group differences in taste, spatial arrangements, and desires for certain kinds of cherished objects that signify who we are.

In my research and teaching, I pay attention to values, identities, inequalities, the power of objects, bodies, the border between public and private, and how we relate to each other as large groups. As a homeowner and lifelong fan of home décor, I pay attention to what our objects and spaces – our material culture – say about our non-material culture.

In The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives, I pay attention to both the social underpinnings of family life as told through spaces and objects, and to the aesthetics of the spaces and objects themselves. In addition to highlighting my own research from the last two decades, I also throw in some stories about my family that I have been assured are only a little bit embarrassing.

If you read the book, you’ll take a tour of several rooms in a hypothetical home – one room per chapter – each of which loosely connects to a family life stage (from college dorm rooms to master suites, from living rooms to kitchens, from separate bedrooms in two separated parents’ homes to communal dining rooms). In each room I highlight not only what we need to know about contemporary families, but also how two objects found within that room signify and shape family roles, relationships, and inequalities.

And so, if you’ve ever wanted to read the story of contemporary family life as told through LEGO, stuffed animals, family photo albums, smartphones, heirloom dishes, power tools, and even love letters, you may enjoy reading this book and then putting it on your bookshelf next to your other cherished objects.

Michelle Janning is Professor of Sociology at Whitman College and Chair, Council on Contemporary Families. Her book The Stuff of Family Life: How our Homes Reflect our Lives was released this week from Rowman &  Littlefield.

photo credit: Marc Nozell via wikimedia commons.

It is a National Day of Prayer, and we are near the six-month mark since the presidential election. As such, we revisit Sarah Diefendorf’s reflections on visiting a brainstorming and prayer meeting the day after the election.

The night after the presidential election, I went to a “brainstorming and prayer” session held in an evangelical church where I am conducting research. Church members felt it was important to come together in a season of transition for the church and the nation, both of which are experiencing a change in leadership. I sat in a circle of parishioners, notebook and pen in my lap. The first person to speak was a retired aeronautical engineer. The white, straight, 65 year-old veteran sighed in relief and bowed his head as he said “I can sleep again at night now.”

Church members discussed renewed feelings of job security. They prayed for those within their church and for the empty seats they would soon fill. They rejoiced in their happiness for what is happening in the country. One woman prayed, “We can elect a pastor, and we can elect a president, but we already have a KING.” None of the conversations focused on Trump’s religious values. Trump’s appeal lay in his secular ability to advocate for them so that they can, in turn, continue to do the work important to them as active evangelicals.

Their prayers and hopes for the next four years reminded me of Arlie Hochschild’s recent work in rural Louisiana, where she uncovered what she calls the deep story of disenfranchised rural tea-party supporters. She suggests that Donald Trump might provide what she calls a “secular rapture” for many in the United States who feel as though their economic and social world is changing. Hochschild argues that the sense of being invisible and forgotten she witnessed among white working and middle-class individuals might indeed be a major factor in Trump’s appeal.

President-elect Donald Trump had the largest share of evangelical votes of any presidential candidate. My current research suggests that members of the evangelical community feel as though they live in a different world than many of us—a world in which they perceive themselves as losing their voice (see here, here, and here). Given those feelings of disenfranchisement, what appeal did a presidential candidate with unclear, and often seemingly un-Christian values hold?

I ask this question as a nonreligious individual researching evangelicals—I think many others ask it too. People ask me what it is like to be a woman, a feminist academic, and nonreligious in these spaces, spaces in which evangelizing is the point. My first response to those queries is that my gender identity does not matter much to those I study. My religious identity—and lack of one—matters much more to them. The reason for the salience of my nonreligious identity is perhaps similar to the reasons we saw such a large evangelical voter turnout.

In my larger research project on gender and sexuality within the evangelical church, I find evidence for what I call an imagined secular heterosexuality. Members of this church community discuss and debate married life and family life in relation to, and against, what they perceive to exist in an outside secular world. These conversations transcend concerns and understandings of life in the home. As an outside member of the secular world, I am seen not only as a researcher, but also as someone who can bridge a gap between their world and the secular world in which they no longer feel they have a voice.

There’s overlap between what I call the imagined secular and what Hochschild predicted as a secular rapture. Both terms highlight a strongly felt divide in the United States. Where evangelicals feel they are living in a separate world—one in which their economic, political, and social needs and beliefs are silenced—Trump may provide the voice they want back. And whether we speak of tea party supporters in rural Louisiana or ardent evangelicals in suburban Washington state, we must attend to the intersections of whiteness, religion, and felt disenfranchisement to understand the evangelical voter turnout we witnessed, and what that turnout now means for the upcoming moral, religious and political debates our country faces.

Originally posted 11/9/16

Sarah Diefendorf is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Washington, where she researches constructions of gender and sexuality in religious communities. You can find more of her work here: www.sarahdief.com

photo by miapowter via pixabay

A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families Online Symposium on Gender and Millennials, originally released March 31, 2017.

Pepin and Cotter make a major contribution to family research by challenging the current practice of treating people’s attitudes about gender as a unitary construct called a “gender ideology.” Instead, they show us that people’s attitudes about gender are multidimensional, complicated, and at times contradictory. Most of us hold multiple gender ideologies or views simultaneously, depending on what aspects of life we are thinking about.

In the process of disentangling people’s attitudes about different gender issues or distinct aspects of changing gender relationships, Pepin and Cotter show us that at least some of the gains made toward gender equality since the 1970s may be under serious threat. On the one hand, support for giving women the same job opportunities as men remains high, and attitudes about the impact of mothers’ labor force participation on their children have continued to liberalize since the 1970s. But among high school seniors — the next generation of parents — support for egalitarian sharing of unpaid household work and decision-making has actually slipped since reaching a high point in 1994.

Pepin and Cotter contend that a new ideology of “egalitarian essentialism” lies behind the revival of support for differentiated gender roles at home, and that these beliefs explain the stalled revolution in gender equality as defined by the lack of gender parity in labor force participation, the persistent gender wage gap, and women’s continued responsibility for childcare and housework in families. They also suggest that such beliefs about gendered family roles at home may be leading many women to internalize the notion that doing the bulk of unpaid work is just and fair, making them unlikely to ask for change. This modernized notion of separate but equal spheres for men and women thus legitimizes and perpetuates an unequal labor burden on women in families, which in turn limits their progress outside the home. Although Pepin and Cotter point to a causal role of attitudes in shaping the social behaviors and structures associated with the stall in the gender revolution, they have trouble explaining why these attitudes have changed.

Cause and consequence. My own work and that of others would suggest that the retreat from egalitarian behaviors and values in many families likely reflects the obstacles couples face in pursuing an egalitarian division of financial and family responsibilities – an arrangement that the majority of U.S. couples state is very important to a successful marriage (Pew 2016) and that researchers find to have increasingly positive consequences for couples’ well-being.

Previous research on adult subjects has shown that people’s attitudes are shaped by their experiences and options. Gender ideologies and choices about gender arrangements in the home are just as much the product of larger structural conditions related to gender inequality as they are the source of those conditions. My work with Jamie Lynch (2013) has demonstrated as much, showing that gender ideologies are both the cause and consequence of the division of housework in marriage. Sharing housework leads to more egalitarian attitudes and vice versa. Additionally, Pedulla and Thébaud (2015) have recently shown just how malleable gender attitudes can be to variations in paid work arrangements and workplace policies. When provided the option of supportive work-family policies, they find that individuals overwhelmingly prefer egalitarian arrangements. But when supportive policies are absent, preferences for egalitarianism decline for most men and women.

Pepin and Cotter acknowledge that adults’ attitudes are shaped over time through their experiences, but they suggest that the attitudes of high school seniors constitute a “unique view from below” — as if these attitudes represent an unadulterated set of beliefs unsullied by the onerous decisions about family leave, childcare, housework, and career investment forced upon adults. Yet, the gender ideologies of youths are forged in interaction with the structural and cultural milieus surrounding them. Children’s gender ideologies are derived from their parents, not just from the messages they are explicitly given but from their own observations of their parents’ experiences (Carlson and Knoester 2011). Pepin and Cotter acknowledge this by pointing out that youths with educated working mothers are more likely to embrace equal family roles at home. They contend that this makes the shift toward conventional attitudes all the more perplexing since demographic shifts toward greater employment, education, and single parenting among mothers’ in the population would suggest more egalitarian beliefs.

It’s the policies. How, then, do we understand the retreat from egalitarian values about domestic roles among youths? Although Pepin and Cotter ask the right questions, they look in the wrong place for the answer. I would argue that two structural factors must be taken into account. First, rising valuation of, and attempts to achieve, egalitarianism from the 1970s to the 1990s were not met with sufficient changes in the workplace or in public policy to accommodate couples’ desires to share family responsibilities. In the face of unresponsive workplaces and role conflict, many adults have likely reverted to conventional gender arrangements and traditional beliefs, transmitting their attitudes to their teenage children. Alternatively, some youths who saw their parents experiencing disagreements and stresses as they tried to integrate work and family without supportive policies may have concluded that a male-breadwinner arrangement would have made family life easier. This could explain Pepin and Cotter’s findings about the more positive views of children of educated working mothers, who generally have better jobs and support systems for family life. But, even so, educated couples often privilege men’s careers, leaving women with incredibly difficult decisions about pursuing careers and raising children (Stone 2007).

A second possible reason for a reversion toward traditional beliefs about family roles and decision-making may lie in the recent increases in counter-conventional family arrangements – arrangements that actually reverse rather than more equally divide traditional household arrangements, with women taking the larger share of breadwinning and men taking on the larger share of homemaking. Indeed, the number of women who earn as much or more than their male partners has increased substantially over the past 30 years (Schwartz and Gonalons-Pons 2016) while the number of stay-at-home fathers has doubled since 1990 (Pew Research 2014).

Some of these role reversals reflect many men’s increasing desire to be more involved at home, but they also reflect real economic stressors for poor and working-class families, resulting from men’s increasingly precarious position in the post-industrial service economy (Pew Research 2014). My research (Carlson, Miller, Sassler, and Hanson 2016) demonstrates that although most couples who adopt a non-traditional egalitarian division of housework find that it enhances marital and sexual satisfaction, most couples who reverse the traditional division of housework find it quite unsatisfactory. When men are primarily responsible for housework, both men and women report the highest feelings of inequity and the greatest dissatisfaction with their housework arrangements. This translates into less sexual intimacy and lower relationship quality. It seems plausible that teens who see their parents or neighbors react negatively to such counter-conventional gendered arrangements may conclude that traditional arrangements with a man as head of the household are “better for everyone involved.”

Looking ahead. Most couples do not appear ready for role reversals, and many have difficulty meeting the increased flexibility demanded of them over the past decade. To the extent that these couples have experienced tension and conflict over these changes, no wonder some children have become less optimistic about the consequences of upending gender conventions than their predecessors in the 1990s.

But this does not mean that the gender revolution has failed or will continue to lose ground. Despite the stall in the gender wage gap and the desegregation of occupations, we have seen a notable leap forward in the ways that egalitarianism benefits people’s personal lives. Indeed, one could argue that the greatest emissary for gender equality is the improvement it leads to in the lives of couples. Unlike the past, today’s egalitarian couples look better on a wide range of indicators than other couples. For example, equally-educated partners now have the lowest odds of divorce, and when a wife has more education than her husband this no longer raises the risk of divorce (Schwartz and Han 2014). Equal-breadwinning couples used to have the highest rates of divorce, but women’s earnings are no longer related to divorce risk (Schwartz and Gonalons-Pons 2016).

Perhaps most important for what more and more children will observe as they grow up, an equal sharing of unpaid labor – both housework and childcare — is increasingly associated with positive advantages for couples’ relationships. In our analysis comparing the association of housework arrangements with mid- to low-income parents’ sense of equity, sexual intimacy, and relationship quality, we found that since the mid-1990s traditional arrangements have increasingly been seen as less fair and egalitarian arrangements increasingly as more fair. Unequal sharing of housework, though initially unrelated to relationship quality, has steadily come to undermine it, while the advantages of conventional arrangements for sexual intimacy have disappeared. In fact, over the time span we observed, sexual frequency declined for all couples except those who shared housework. In addition to the rising benefits of sharing housework, we find also that having partners equally share childcare responsibilities is associated with greater sexual and relationship satisfaction compared to having mothers shoulder the majority of care.

Taken together, it is difficult to reconcile a narrative of a stalled revolution due to a retreat from egalitarian beliefs with our findings that egalitarianism increasingly benefits couples and is seen as the most satisfying and fair arrangement. I suggest that we have seen a polarization in family life that is likely a counterpoint to the polarization in access to good jobs and stable benefits. Relationship stability and quality has been enhanced for the fortunate minority who manage to achieve egalitarian relationships without sacrificing their work or family obligations. But for those who cannot – for the too many who are forced into conventional and counter-conventional arrangements because of financial and time constraints – egalitarian beliefs have been abandoned to defend against cognitive dissonance and the risk of psychological distress. These struggles and reconciled beliefs are then likely transmitted to their kids.

Pepin and Cotter’s important findings call to mind the image of a canary in a coal mine, warning us that if things do not change, the promise of gender equality may suffocate and die. Yet it’s important to remember that there may be light and fresh air at the end of the tunnel. Because youths have increasingly delayed their movement into marriage and parenthood since the 1970s, the attitudes of today’s high school seniors are measured an average of eight to ten years before most will begin family formation (Mathews and Hamilton 2009; Payne 2012). For these youths, several years remain before they will make decisions about how to arrange the paid and unpaid labor in their marital or cohabiting partnerships. Much will likely change, both personally and socially, in the interim.

Still, Pepin and Cotter’s study shows that our current lack of supportive institutions and policies to help families integrate work and family life has begun to take its toll. If something is not done soon to structurally support the egalitarian arrangements that research now shows to be best for most relationships, people may no longer want them to begin with.

Daniel L. Carlson is an Assistant Professor of Family, Health, and Policy at the University of Utah.


The American value of individualism affects us all, but what happens when you are not able to express that value? This is a dilemma for older people subject to stereotypes of dependency. They face special challenges in striving for this ideal and feeling comfortable enough to accept help so that they can remain self-sufficient. In my last post, I explored some reasons why older people may not want to move in with their families. Given these cultural pressures, how do elders living on their own negotiate their need for care and autonomy?

Programs like Meals on Wheels help older people remain independent in their homes. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

Polls consistently show that older adults and aging baby boomers want to “age in place”—or remain in their homes independently for as long as possible. This arrangement, desired by ordinary people as a means of preserving autonomy and by policy makers who view this as a cost effective alternative to nursing homes, requires that seniors—often in conjunction with their families—patch together creative ways to support their independence.

The day-to-day managing of routine tasks like grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, and household chores, usually necessitates a little help from a supportive web that includes family, friends, neighbors, and social service agencies. Family may help older relatives with chores, coordinate medical appointments, and pay for supplemental help when possible. Network studies have found that friends are especially good at providing emotional support and a sympathetic ear when life’s travails require someone to bear witness. And neighbors can pitch in with practical help, such as picking up a few things from the store when an older person has trouble leaving the house. For years I have observed how eighty-year-old Joe’s next-door neighbor has served as his link to the outside world whenever his swollen ankles and knees leave him homebound. She brings him a copy of The Daily News and groceries whenever he needs a few days to mend.

Beyond kin and friendship networks, senior centers provide a range of services to community-dwelling elders, though they are also usually the first candidates for budget cuts. A few older people I’ve met over the years regularly took advantage of the cheap but nutritious meals offered daily by a local senior center for a dollar, which saved them the hassle of cooking for one and the cost of eating out but also provided a little companionship. Nonprofit organizations that serve older adults, such as the Jewish Association Serving the Aging (JASA), offer comprehensive access to services that help older people deal with the challenges of living alone in an expensive, gentrified city like New York, including benefits screening for programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. As I walked past a Midtown Manhattan food pantry the other day and saw the line stretching a half-block long, filled with mostly Asian and Latino elders and their shopping carts waiting for donated potatoes, rice, and canned vegetables, I was reminded again of how crucial these stop gaps are for those struggling to remain independent in old age.

But in some cases, elders may go too far in keeping their family at bay due to fears of losing their independence if they reveal their physical or financial challenges. In my own research, I’ve found that some people feel so threatened by the prospect of moving in with family (or worse, a nursing home) and ashamed of asking for help that they sometimes go to great lengths to cover up health issues and other difficulties. It’s often only after a crisis that families learn of mounting problems. For example, after 83-year-old Dottie ended up hospitalized for a heart attack her daughter discovered that she had not seen a doctor besides her podiatrist for several years. In the absence of regular medical care, Dottie had improvised her own self-care measures such as weighing down a shopping cart with telephone books for support when she walked, rather than using a cane or walker. When Theresa, in her mid-70s, fell and twisted her ankle, her family discovered the severity of her dementia, which had eroded her ability to tell time and remember dates. Afterwards, she moved closer to where her brother lived.

How can we support elders so that reaching out for help doesn’t pose a threat to independence but rather ensures that a bad situation doesn’t get worse or become an unnecessary crisis? Perhaps the first step is recognizing that none of us can do it alone and that at every age we achieve self-reliance by drawing on a mix of social resources and supports.

Originally posted 8/4/14

Stacy Torres is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and associate at the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

photo credit: John Schmitt

Scientists stepped out of their offices and labs to make a statement. On Saturday, April 22, the March for Science took place in Washington, D.C. along with over 600 satellite marches. With funding and facts under threat by the new administration, scientists from a wide range of disciplines and supporters of science filled the streets to advocate for the importance of scientific research and evidence. To get a better understanding of the significance of the March for Science and the threat of the current administration’s proposed policies, we spoke to Dr. Philip Cohen who marched in D.C. on Saturday. Cohen is a professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and a senior scholar at Council on Contemporary Families. What did we learn? The March for Science is positive, but there is more to be done.

Q: What kind of impact (if any) do you think the March for Science could have on policy and public opinion?

PNC: We are at an amazing moment when the forces against science and reason and the public appreciation of science both seem to be peaking, which implies a heightened state of conflict. Like the Women’s March and the protests against Trump’s immigration and tax policies, I hope the March for Science helps to coalesce the movement against Trumpism and build solidarity for the long difficult times to come. Whether it will yield tangible policy results in the short run I have no idea.

Q: The American Sociology Association and other social science groups endorsed the March for Science. What do you think such groups are hoping to gain from their participation in the march? What would you like to see as a result of the March?

PNC: In addition to ASA, I was glad to see the Population Association of America, to which I also belong, sign on to the March. We have immediate concerns, especially around support for social science research through NSF, NIH, and other agencies — and also the federal data collection agencies, principally the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Center for Health Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, and others. Even without aggressive manipulation of their work, or opposition to their specific projects, just the budget slashing they’re talking about could be extremely bad. On the plus side, those agencies employ a lot of people, and their work has direct applications in all Congressional districts and for a lot of important constituencies, so I’m optimistic that mobilizing support for government data might yield positive results at the federal level. And the professional associations, including ASA and PAA, can play an important role in that. But it’s too early to tell.

Q: The new administration has shown that science programs are not a priority for them. More specific to social sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities is on the chopping block in the administration’s proposed budget. What effect does this have on your research and others like you, and what would you recommend those who oppose such cuts do after the March for Science?

PNC: For social scientists, NSF and NIH are the most important agencies. Other research is funded by smaller agencies like NEH, and also by research divisions in other agencies, such as the Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, and so on. Anyone whose research is federally funded right now has to be very concerned and thinking about alternative avenues for funding. Some philanthropic agencies will step in, but they can’t replace the big federal budgets.

One key area I’ve been very involved in, which is directly relevant here, is the open scholarship movement. This was already important, but with the assault on science and reason, and the potential slashing of research budgets, it’s even more vital to make our research more efficient, to reach more people more quickly, to maximize the potential for collaboration and information sharing — all the outcomes we hope to achieve through open scholarship. That’s why I’ve been involved in the SocArXiv project, which seeks to drive social science toward openness. American academia wastes billions of dollars propping up an exclusionary publishing system that is slow, inefficient, and deleterious to the cause of science and knowledge creation. We can do better with less, and now is the time to make that happen. I hope social scientists, in particular, will take the simple steps necessary to make their research freely available, which can be an important piece of building public support and trust in our efforts.

Megan Peterson is a senior sociology major at Framingham State University and a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs and Social Media Intern.

A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families Online Symposium on Gender and Millennials, originally released March 31, 2017.

“Millennials” is a term coined by Neil Howe and William Strauss to refer to the cohort of young people who were entering adulthood at the beginning of the 21st Century. In two best-selling books, these authors described youths born in the 1980s and 1990s as qualitatively different from – and superior to – the preceding Generation X. In fact, in their second book about Millennials, Howe and Straus equated Millennials with the GI generation—also known as the Greatest Generation–labeling both “hero” generations. Millennials, they opined, had seven core traits. Treated as “special” and “sheltered” while growing up, they became confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving.

Strauss and Howe initially drew the Millennial cohort’s boundaries as the two decades of births spanning from 1982 through the 1990s, but the early boundary has been pushed back to the late 1970s by some writers, and Howe and Strauss later extended it to people born up through 2004.

In other words, the Millennial birth cohort has become larger and larger over time and so have the adjectives used to describe them. A recent Google search produced nearly 40 million references to Millennials, but even the most casual reading of the literature quickly reveals just how promiscuous the term has become and how contradictory are the generalizations made about what they are like and how they will drive social and political change.

What is a cohort, anyway? Demographers and sociologists make an important conceptual distinction between age cohorts and age categories. There is a simple way of understanding the difference: Birth cohorts have a life span while age categories are a slice of the population at a point in time. People move out of age groups but they remain in their birth cohort.

Karl Mannheim, the eminent political sociologist, conjectured that a birth cohort shares a specific historical experience and may form a common identity or consciousness in early adulthood as age peers try to make sense of or adapt to critical political, economic, and social events. This idea was picked up and widely adopted by social scientists in the middle of the last century as the Baby Boom generation emerged.

But Howe and Strauss, and many pundits since, have gone a step further, attributing to each particular age group a unique “personality,” worldview, and set of attitudes or psychological characteristics that is distinct from previous cohorts and common to most members. While this makes for good copy, the assumption that all members of a cohort share some commonality is far from settled.

For example, why should we expect that young adults now in their teens and early twenties share much in common with those in their late-thirties? The oldest of these young adults entered the labor market during the Great Recession while the youngest have yet to even complete their schooling; the oldest witnessed first-hand the tragic events of 9/11 while the youngest were infants or not yet even born on that date. As sociologist Philip Cohen points out, youths born between 1980 through 1984 were in their late twenties when the 2009 recession hit, and many had already begun their childbearing careers. By contrast, youths born between 1990 and 1994 started their childbearing years at the height of the economic crisis, and at least so far have dramatically lower birth rates.

About Baby Boomers. Similarly, sociologists debate whether it is meaningful or useful to ascribe such commonalities to the Baby Boomers, commonly defined as people born between 1946 and 1964. The oldest of these spent their early years in the politically repressive and rigidly gendered 1950s while the youngest spent their childhoods surrounded by the Civil Rights movement and the early feminist movement of the 1960s, and both groups had significantly different same racial-ethnic, class, or regional experiences. The marriage rate has fallen fairly steadily since its high point in the 1950s and early 1960s. But the sharpest drop, a full 22 percent decline, occurred within the Baby Boom generation rather than being pioneered by Millennials.

The belief that birth cohorts have particular identities has become popular in marketing and consumer research because young people are especially receptive to adopting new styles of dress, music, and social practices in language and communication. There is no doubt that such tastes are shared among age peers; but there is some doubt about whether these stylistic commonalities persist in later life (probably not), and even more about whether they extend to widely shared world views about politics that are maintained for life (unlikely).

Think, for example, about whether Baby Boomers, who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, have generally held onto to their views of the world as they entered mid- or later-life. On many issues, some have become more conservative, with a disproportionate share supporting Trump. But, a larger majority of Baby Boomers now support gender equality than did their 18-to-25 year old selves in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Another way to look at generations and cohorts. Yes, new values and new behaviors often emerge among younger age groups as they encounter different social, political, technological, and economic conditions from those experienced by people who grew up ten, 20, or 50 years earlier. Some of the new conditions recent cohorts have experienced, different from those of their elders, may help explain why, on average, Americans born in recent decades have different attitudes than older cohorts on issues such as climate change. In a June 2015 survey, 60 percent of 18-29 year-olds said that human activity was causing global warming, almost twice as many as the 31 percent of Americans 65 and older. But, it is not clear whether this change is a distinctive view of the Millennial cohort. Only time will tell.

Another new development that has undoubtedly affected the beliefs and behaviors of younger Americans is that the timetable for growing up was dramatically altered in the second half of the 20th century. It now takes much longer for people to complete their education and attain full economic independence than it did 50 years ago (Furstenberg, 2010).

Young adults these days tend to flock to urban environments more than they once did, in part because of this postponement. Values about living arrangements, the pursuit of romantic and sexual relationships, and the timing of marriage have also been affected. But, these changes have been coming about gradually (since the 1980s) with each age group experiencing a later age of entry to adulthood and a larger share of residents in central urban areas. It is not obvious that these preferences are distinctly expressed by Millennials and that they will subside as a new cohort succeeds them.

It is often difficult to make the case that changing attitudes and behaviors are confined to a particular age group or that they will persist over time. Rather, a succession of age groups has responded to the new realities of the need for extended education to find a more secure footing in the labor market. In my recent research with Sheela Kennedy, we found that the timetable in expectations for coming of age changed not only among young adults but their parents and grandparents. Demographers would call this a “period effect” (influencing all age groups) rather than a “cohort effect” that is experienced by a single age cohort.

As the briefing papers by Pepin and Cotter and by Fate-Dixon show, attitudes about male-breadwinner families and working mothers have shifted away from an egalitarian direction among a significant section of the younger generation, even though acceptance of equal rights as a principle has continued to grow. It remains to be seen whether this trend represents a broader view in the general population that reflects new experiences in family life or whether it is a temporary expression of experiences or challenges occurring during a “stage of life” that is confined to an age grouping. Will it persist as young adults who are not yet in families move into partnership and parenthood? Will it abate if advocates for family-friendly work policies make gains? Or will it spread up the age ladder if economic and political developments make it even harder than it already is for men and women to share breadwinning and parenting? We simply don’t know, but answering these questions will tell us more about what is in store in the coming decades than fanciful generalizations about the identity of “the” Millennials, who are every bit as divided by race, ethnicity, religion, region, gender and sexuality as their elders.

Frank Furstenberg is Professor of Sociology and Research Associate in the Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania.

A debate about just how gender progressive Millennials are has been created by a CCF online symposium. In it, Joanna Pepin and David Cotter report that attitudes toward gender equality are not always consistent: There are different trends in attitudes toward gender equality for the public world of work and the private world of the family. They suggest that while Millennials’ attitudes toward women’s rights in the world of work remain feminist, they are less likely to support equality at home than did the last generation. They use nationally representative data from surveys of high school seniors to support their argument.

We use different data and replicate their argument about the complexity of gender attitudes. But we find no evidence that Millennials are moving backward on their commitment to gender equality. Our analysis is based on attitudinal survey questions on gender questions in the General Social Survey pooled from 1977 to 2014. We then draw on just released 2016 data from the same survey to illustrate the results about Millennials today. In the analysis using data from 1977 to 2014, we measure attitudes toward women in the public sphere with a question that asked whether men are better suited emotionally for politics than are women. We measure attitudes towards women’s role in families with three questions: Is it better if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family; whether a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work; and whether a preschool child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works.

We use a different method than did Pepin and Cotter. We let social groups emerge empirically from the data, without pre-determining who would show up in each group (statisticians call this latent class analysis). We label the groups based on their answers to these questions about gender equality and then describe what kinds of people hold what attitudes. We traced the kinds of people in each group over decades and can describe them by race, educational status and sex. Our analysis confirms that there are indeed distinct differences between gender attitudes toward equality in the public sphere and equality within families. But we show this is not a new split. It’s one that is decades old, and our results suggest the split emerged by the 1990s.

Three major groups were formed by how people’s answers clustered (see Table 1). There were egalitarians who approved of equality in the workplace and the home. There were traditionalists who rejected equality in both the workplace and the family. And then there were the ambivalents who approved of gender equality in the workplace but not in the family. (In our actual analyses each of these groups was furthered divided into those with strong beliefs and those with moderate beliefs and the table below is presented to show that distinction.)

Where have all the Traditionals gone? The big historical story is that there are no more traditionalists. From 1977 to about 1990, about a third of Americans were traditionalists and did not believe women and men should have the same rights and opportunities at work or at home. In that era, there were almost no ambivalents. Everyone was either traditional or egalitarian. But what changed after 1990 was that the traditionalists became ambivalents. That is, by the early 1990s those who used to reject equality totally had accepted women’s right to equality at work but still resisted equality in the family. Americans who have a carte-blanche objection to gender equality in both the workplace and the home have become almost extinct. Score one big win for the feminist revolution. But the victory is partial because those traditionals have not become egalitarians, they have become ambivalents, and this is a reminder that feminist have much work to do before everyone believes in gender equality within the family.

Table 1. Are Millennials Rejecting the Gender Revolution?

(Authors’ Analysis from General Social Survey data, 1977-2014.)

Our next step was to analyze what demographic characteristics were more likely to be associated with being egalitarians vs. ambivalent for each year in the data from 1991 to 2014. We do not include traditionals here because they are almost extinct. To do this, we conducted a multinomial logit latent class regression (the analysis is available upon request). Millennials are as likely to be egalitarians as the generation immediately before them (often called Gen X). We find no retreat from equality but also no statistically significant change toward feminist attitudes among Millennials. Rather, attitudes have leveled off. The biggest generational shifts remain between Baby Boomers and their parent’s generation.

While Americans who believe in gender equality in the workforce but not at home still exist, they are most likely to be pre-Baby-boomer men, without a college education. In the General Social Survey data we find no evidence that Millennials have ambivalence to gender equality, nor that they are more likely to endorse traditional family forms than those in the past. We illustrate this argument with a descriptive summary of the data from the year 2016 (in Figure 1).

Conclusion. The traditionalist who believes women do not belong in the public sphere is now a dinosaur. Almost no one in American society believes women do not deserve equality in the public sphere. But those traditionals did not become egalitarians, rather they held on to traditional beliefs about women’s place in the family.

This is not a new story. The big swing toward more egalitarian attitudes toward women in the family can be traced to the era of the Second Wave of feminism. Our evidence shows that while Baby Boomers were the pioneering feminist birth cohort who experienced a generation gap with their own parents, those after them have inherited egalitarian attitudes but have not pushed the envelope, at least not as represented in this national dataset. Still, there is no evidence in these data of a backward slide among Millennials. It is the oldest generation, the parents of Baby Boomers, who remain the most likely to be ambivalent about gender change. These national survey data suggest that Millennials may not be pushing boundaries on gender attitudes but they do continue the slow march trend toward egalitarianism that Baby Boomers began.

Barbara J. Risman is Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and President of the Board of the Council on Contemporary Families (brisman@uic.edu, @bjrisman). Ray Sin is a behavioral science researcher at Morningstar Inc. and a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. William Scarborough is a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families Online Symposium on Gender and Millennials, originally released March 31, 2017.

As Pepin and Cotter’s new work shows, attitudes towards gender equality across different domains have diverged. Although young people hold increasingly egalitarian views about women’s role in the workplace, the increase in their support for egalitarian attitudes about women’s role in the household has stalled and even seems to have slid.

Why the lag? Old masculinity scripts, perhaps. Part of the reason for this divergence may be that changes in the labor force have driven changes in how men view women’s roles at home. As women get closer to equal footing outside of the home, men may be compensating by stressing the importance of traditional women’s roles in the home. In essence, saying that women should be the primary caregivers in the household may be a powerful way for young men to assert their masculinity and for women to assert their support of traditional gender roles in a world in which the dominant economic role of men is no longer a given.

In a 2012 article, Yasemin Besen-Cassino and I showed that men who earned less money than their wives did less housework than those men who earned the same or more than their wives. Interestingly, and in a twist on other research in the same area, we found that this behavior was conditional on total rather than relative income – men were threatened only by high-earning wives, regardless of their own income – and that the reduction occurred in only one type of housework — cleaning. They made up for their cutbacks in cleaning by an increase in cooking, a behavior that has become effectively de-gendered in recent years.

We theorized that this was likely the result of men’s adopting symbolic masculinities in response to a gender role threat: In this case, the threat was the loss of their traditional economic dominance within the household, and the symbolic response was a reduction in the amount of time spent on cleaning. Men who experienced income loss relative to their wives did not cut back on the total time they spent on housework but only in the type of housework most traditionally associated with the feminine role.

Our finding that relative income only mattered when a wife had relatively high earnings may have implications for the recent slippage in support for male breadwinning families noted by Pepin and Cotter. A wife who earns more than her husband only constitutes a threat if she actually earns what is an objectively high amount of money. All of this means that, until recently, direct economic threat to men was limited to a relatively small group. However, as women gain standing in the workplace, and men increasingly view the world as being slanted towards women economically (whether it is or not), that small group has been growing. Of course, high school seniors are unlikely to have been directly threatened by women’s higher earnings, so they may be absorbing the message that male privilege is under assault from media accounts or the experiences of others in their family or community.

Refusing to clean the house is just one way in which men can symbolically express their masculinity in response to earning less money than their spouses: The political and social realms may offer men an even more potent way to display their masculinity to themselves and others, something that we may be seeing in the exit polls analyzed by Kawashima-Ginsberg. In a survey experiment carried out last year, my colleagues at the PublicMind poll and I primed men to think about how, in an increasing number of households, women now earn more money than their husbands. Men who were made to think about this sort of gender threat became dramatically less likely to support Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head match-up with Donald Trump, though no less likely to support Bernie Sanders. This suggests that when men are nudged to think about situations in which they lose traditional economic sources of masculine prestige, they become less willing to accept women’s political leadership, at least from women who embrace non-traditional gender roles.

However, qualitative research shows that that not all men adopt traditionally masculine roles in response to gender role threat. Some men may instead go the other way, creating new masculine roles. For instance, instead of seeking alternative ways to buttress traditional masculinity, they may begin to stress their roles as fathers, or craftsmen, or activists as alternative sources of masculinity. Still others, as Sullivan (2011) has argued, may not feel threat at all.

Men’s political views polarize more when it seems like they are losing ground. Men might also be more or less threatened because of their pre-existing social and political outlooks. To examine this, I made use of the 2006-2008-2010 General Social Survey Panel Study, which contacted 2000 Americans up to three times during those years, and looked for changes in men’s political and social views that were associated with changes in their relative earnings within the household. The panel design is ideal for this sort of study, as it means that we’re not looking at whether men support or oppose abortion rights, for instance, but whether they’ve become more or less supportive over the last two years. The period is also perfect for this sort of analysis, given the economic disruptions suffered by many households over the course of the 2008 recession.

I expected that men would feel the greatest gender role threat – and therefore, the greatest need to compensate for it by expressing symbolic masculinities – when they had lost larger amounts of income relative to their spouses. For example, I found that over a period of two years, 10 percent of respondents ended up contributing about 40 percentage points less towards the household income than at the start of the period, dropping, say, from 60 percent of the household income to 20 percent. Such men, I reasoned, were far more likely to feel a great deal of gender role threat arising from their economic status than men who maintained or improved their share of household income over the two-year period. This is slightly different than the sort of threat induced in the survey experiment above (where we primed respondents to think about women getting ahead) – men here were threatened by their loss of earnings, rather than the gains of women, but the type of economic threat to breadwinner status is the same in both cases.

To test the effects of this sort of gender role threat on men’s political and social views, I looked for changes in their views on two issues that have a significant liberal-conservative divide: support for abortion rights and support for government financial aid to African-Americans.

Republican and Democratic men changed in different ways. For one group of respondents, the results confirmed the long-standing belief that men who experience gender role threat become more supportive of traditional ideals and conservative politics. Men who started the period as Republicans but ended up contributing less to their household income compared to their wives at the end of the two years become significantly less supportive of abortion rights over the period. While other Republican men also tended to become less supportive, the decline was largest for men who lost the most income relative to their spouses. (See Figure 1.)

But among Democratic men, the results were strikingly different. Those who lost income relative to their wife over the period became, on average, 0.5 points more supportive of abortion rights. While conservative men came to hold more conservative views on abortion under conditions of economic gender role threat, liberal men come to hold more liberal views.

To add to the complication, Democratic men who gained income relative to their spouses actually became less supportive of abortion. Among liberal men, it seems, those who came to fill the traditional role as a breadwinner became more conservative in their views as well as their economic role in the household.

Similar effects hold for views on government aid to African-Americans in the same GSS panel data. The specific question asked respondents whether African-Americans should “work their way up,” rather than receiving “special favors,” an item that has frequently been used to measure support for government aid to African-Americans[1]. In general, Democratic men became a little less supportive of such aid over a two-year period, and Republican men became a little more supportive, a result indicative of expected reversion to the mean. However, men who lost income relative to their spouses moved in a direction different than the rest of their fellow political thinkers. Republican men who lost income became even less supportive of government aid to African-Americans, while Democratic men in this position became even more supportive. (See Figure 2.)

[1] The questions used in the GSS panel survey ask respondents: “Do you agree strongly, agree somewhat, neither agree nor disagree, disagree somewhat, or disagree strongly with the following statement: Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without special favors.” Responses range from “Agree Strongly” (27percent in first year) to “Disagree Strongly” (4 percent in first year), along a 5 point scale, in which higher responses indicate more support for aid to African-Americans, and lower responses indicate less support. Overall, the sample in the GSS panel was 73 percent white, 14 percent African-American, and 13 percent belonged to other racial categories.

Results like this suggest a few conclusions. First, a variety of political and social views, not limited to those involving gender, can serve as symbolic masculinities, allowing men to bolster their gender identities by adopting certain attitudes. They may become less supportive of abortion rights, or parental leave laws, or less likely to support a woman candidate for high office.

Second, instead of uniformly making men more conservative, gender role threat seems to lead to attitude polarization, with men who start off with more liberal views becoming more liberal, and those who start off holding more conservative views becoming more conservative. Men who have a more generally liberal worldview seem to react to threats to traditional masculine identity by further rejecting traditional masculinity, while conservative men react by becoming embracing it more.

Third, this sort of compensating mechanism doesn’t work equally well for all men. Men without strong political views to start with (political independents in the results described above) don’t seem to change their political attitudes very much in the face of economic gender role threat. It seems that if politics isn’t very important to you, you can’t compensate for a loss of relative income by embracing one set of political views or another. This isn’t to say that these men aren’t compensating in some way – but they may be doing it in some fascinating new way that we just haven’t noticed or yet recognized as compensatory behavior.

Dan Cassino is Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of Social Sciences and History at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Photo by paulbr75 via pixabay

Recessions, student debt, and the prerogatives of other people with prior accumulated wealth are a few of the things getting in the way of millennials and their families owning a home. While millennials are the up and coming age group in need of supplying their families with a roof over their head, their options are slim.

So, who are millennials? According Pew Research, “millennials” are born during the years of 1981-1997–though the definition keeps expanding, as Frank Furstenberg noted in his recent brief for the CCF Gender & Millennials symposium. This cohort is at the stage in life when they are seeking housing or even aiming to own a home–but that path is challenging. Using old-fashioned definitions, millennials are doing “everything” right. Recent employment data shows that the percentage of 25-to-34 year olds in the labor force is the largest it has been in eight years. Millennials are earning more than the generation that came before it. Though millennials are delaying marriage (or declining to get married), this is the age window for marriage—median age of marriage in 2016 was around 28 to 30 years old. The age of first child—usually born to couples, not always married–is around 26.

So, in familiar and unfamiliar ways, family building begins. While they are finding and being hired into better-paying jobs and building their new families, this is when the home search begins. One problem: though they are ready to buy, few houses are on the market. And another: The homes for sale are priced too high for first-time buyers so millennials are renting for longer periods of time. Since the prices are so high, older people have the advantage over millennials, snatching up what’s available. This leaves millennials with a hazy vision for their future. Homeownership is one of the first and primary ways of creating wealth despite economic changes. If millennials can’t buy their first home, how can they build their own wealth? No property means they stay in a lower economic status with no way of moving up the ladder.

This affects a lot of people. The census assumes that household formation—all those people who are going ahead and having a child, moving in, or getting married–will average to about 1.5 million per year through 2020 which is up from the annual average of 900,000 it has been for the last five years. There are more and more new families, but fewer affordable homes for them. These staggering numbers give you a sense of how the generation’s needs fuel competition and push prices up, too.

What do millennials have to fall back on when trying to gain wealth if even getting their first house isn’t an easy task? Jobs aren’t enough—and working millennials face a housing market with rising prices, fewer options, and feverish competition. Homeownership—historically the American path to wealth and security—is more and more out of reach. What needs to be done? More entry-level homes and communities. If we have more of these homes this creates easier access for millennials who in the future will be experienced homeowners. Won’t this be better for the economy now and in the future? Improving housing and homeownership will certainly be better for millennials.

Tasia Clemons is a junior sociology major at Framingham State University, a resident assistant, and a CCF Public Affairs Intern.


Keynote brief prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families Online Symposium on Gender and Millennials March 31, 2017.

Overview. We often think that each generation becomes more modern, egalitarian, and tolerant than the last. And frequently this is correct—as it generally has been with changing attitudes about gender, work and family. Recently, though, our research has shown a surprising twist to that pattern. Looking at a survey that for nearly 40 years has asked high school seniors a series of questions about how men and women should be treated at work, what responsibilities at home should look like, and whether mothers’ employment harms their children, we see that on some of those questions the answers have indeed continued to become more egalitarian. But on others, what had been a trend toward equality stopped or even reversed in the mid-1990s.

We focused on youth because their values are important for predicting future trends. Youths’ attitudes capture changing cultural ideals that are less likely to have been reconciled with adulthood realities, such as unpaid maternity leave and the expenses of childcare, making their opinions of gender unique views from below. Although these adolescents have not yet entered the labor force full-time, the youth in our analyses had diverse experiences with their families, including witnessing their mothers’ work pathways and, for many, the dynamics of their parents at home.

The data in three charts. When we looked at the changing patterns of responses among high school seniors from the mid-1970s to today, we found that trends in attitudes about gender equality in the public realm increasingly diverged from those regarding gender relations within families (see Figure 1). In reference to the public sphere—employment opportunities and leadership abilities—youth have indeed become more egalitarian, increasing their support for the idea that men and women have equal abilities and should be afforded equal opportunities. In 1976, 82 percent of high school seniors already agreed or strongly agreed that “women should be considered as seriously as men for jobs as executives or politicians.” By 1994, that had risen to 91 percent, a high that was sustained for the next two decades. Similarly, in 1976, 76 percent agreed that “A woman should have exactly the same job opportunities as a man.” This rose to 89 percent in 1994 and has remained stable through 2014. Essentially, starting in the mid-1970s, youth’s attitudes became more egalitarian and plateaued at a high level of egalitarianism since the mid-1990s.

Young people’s attitudes with regard to employed mothers’ relationship with their children show greater variability over the period (see Figure 2). We observed high school seniors becoming more supportive of employed mothers from 1977 through 1994, with their support slowing for a period thereafter, and then becoming more supportive again in the mid-2000s. When asked whether “a working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work,” only about half (49 percent) of high school seniors agreed in 1976, but this had risen to more than two-thirds (68 percent) by 1994 and three-quarters (76 percent) by 2014. In 1976, about three-quarters of high school seniors agreed that “a preschool child is likely to suffer if the mother works.” By 1994, however, nearly half (48 percent) disagreed, and by 2014 about 60 percent disagreed. This dramatic change suggests that the “mommy wars” and similar controversies seem to have abated. There appears to be broad and growing acceptance of mothers’ employment.

But a very different and surprising trend is evident in attitudes about gender dynamics in families (in Figure 3). After becoming more egalitarian for almost twenty years, high school seniors’ thinking about a husband’s authority and divisions of labor at home has since become substantially more traditional. In 1976, when they were asked whether “it is usually better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family,” fewer than 30 percent of high school seniors disagreed. By 1994, disagreement with the claim that the male breadwinner–female homemaker family is the best household arrangement had almost doubled, rising to 58 percent. By 2014, however, it had fallen back to 42 percent—a decline of 16 percentage points since its peak in 1994. In 1976, a majority of high school seniors (59 percent) disagreed with the statement that “the husband should make all the important decisions in the family.” This rose to 71 percent by 1994 but fell back to 63 percent by 2014.

In our analyses of these trends, we found that while young men have consistently been less egalitarian than young women, the relative difference between them has not narrowed on any of the attitudes covered in the surveys. Also, Black youth have consistently been more egalitarian than their White counterparts, but again we saw no evidence of either convergence or divergence between White and Black youths’ beliefs about gender. Black high school seniors exhibited the same initial trend toward more equality in household arrangements and later trend toward more traditional views.

These results are puzzling because population demographics are changing in ways that might be expected to produce greater support for egalitarian principles. The population is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, and at the same time, religiosity is declining overall. Families are increasingly likely to count on mothers’ employment for economic stability, whether youth grow up in dual-earner households or single-mother families. We expected that as women’s educational attainment and married women’s labor force participation increased in the 1980s and early 1990s, youths would be increasingly exposed to feminist beliefs, leading them to adopt egalitarian attitudes even if their own families maintained conventional arrangements. Yet our findings showed an initial rise in egalitarian beliefs, followed by slippages that we could not explain by accounting for demographic and background factors such as race, region of the country, religiosity, family structure, or the respondent’s mother’s education and employment, as well as contextual factors such as aggregate mothers’ employment and education. Even though youth with more highly educated mothers and/or consistently employed mothers were more egalitarian than their peers, and the percentages of youth with these educated and employed mothers increased over time, this population change did not fully account for the attitude trends.

We are left, then, searching for explanations in the realm of culture. For this we turn to the concept of “egalitarian essentialism” as an emergent framework for understanding shifts in gender ideology. Back in the nineteenth century, as the worlds of “work” and “home” were increasingly spatially separated, a doctrine of “separate spheres” developed to ideologically justify, and reinforce, the division between the masculine public sphere and feminine private sphere. It is telling here that what was considered “work” included only that which took place in the public sphere—waged employment, politics and the like—excluding all of the labor that took place in the home. The tasks of caring for children and maintaining a household were seen as an extension of love and motherhood, with a built-in intrinsic reward for women. This “separate spheres” ideology experienced a resurgence in the post-WWII era and was the primary ideology against which the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s reacted.

But the question became what would replace that ideology? Some feminists pushed for a more androgynous conception of equality, disrupting beliefs about the oppositeness of men and women. In the 1980s and early 1990s, people seemed to be moving toward the idea that women and men could work equally well in both the public and private spheres. Yet the narrative that eventually emerged became a hybrid of the two approaches, promoting women’s choice to participate in either sphere while trying to equalize the perceived value of a home sphere that was still seen as distinctively female. The egalitarian essentialist perspective mixed values of equality (men and women should have equal opportunities, gender discrimination is wrong) alongside beliefs about the essential nature of men and women (men are naturally or inherently better suited to some roles and women to others).

The revised kind of egalitarianism that rapidly increased after 1994 is rooted in ideology compatible with American cultural ideals of individualism, beliefs associated more with the public sphere than rooted in families. Tellingly, the pattern of increased though incomplete equality in the workplace and persistent though lessened inequality at home is present not only in the realm of attitudes but also when we look at objective measures like occupational segregation and housework. The percentages of men and women who would have to change occupations for all occupations to have equal numbers of men and women declined from about two-thirds (64 percent) of workers in 1950 to about 50 percent by the 1990s, and has been stalled ever since (authors’ calculations from Census PUMS/ACS). Similarly, the gender gap in time spent in core housework activities (e.g., cooking, cleaning, laundry) steadily declined from the 1960s to the mid-1990s and then stagnated.

One possible reason egalitarian ideology is highly endorsed in the marketplace is that occupational segregation permits the embrace of equal opportunity ideals without challenging beliefs that men and women are innately and fundamentally different. Even though “a woman should have exactly the same job opportunities as a man,” women may be thought to choose different types of work because those occupations feel more consistent with their identity as women. The path to blending a belief in equality with a belief in inherent differences between men and women at home is less obvious, which may explain the return to non-egalitarian gender attitudes within families. For example, arriving at gender parity in time spent in housework may require redefining what counts as “men’s chores” and “women’s chores.” It is notable that most of the narrowing of differences in time spent on chores noted above came from reductions in women’s time spent on these tasks. Achieving equity within families requires men to take on tasks that are culturally devalued (cleaning, laundry, and to a lesser extent cooking). In other words, women entering the workforce felt they were gaining something valuable, just as fathers stepping up participation in parenting felt they were gaining something valuable, but everybody hates housework.

A potential argument against our cultural explanation could be the fact that gender equalization appears to be continuing apace with regard to child-rearing. As noted above, fathers continue to increase their time spent with children  (see Figure 4), even as they lag behind in matching women’s housework time. Mothers’ earnings are increasingly thought of as essential to the family, rather than considered supplemental income. Although we can only speculate, these developments may be better explained by rising economic insecurity than by a continued progression of commitment to androgynous parenting. Economic necessity may be associated with increased support for mothers’ employment, even as more young people began to report a preference for the male breadwinner–female homemaker model starting in the mid-1990s.

It has long been assumed that progress for women in the public sphere would result in improvement for women in the family. However, our findings, along with other scholarship, suggest that advances for women in the public sphere may increase many people’s desire to reinforce gender essentialist ideology in the family. Perhaps surprisingly, we didn’t find a pairing of egalitarian and essentialist ideology among survey respondents, where high school students endorsed the male breadwinner arrangement but also equal decision-making at home. Instead, the increase in agreement with the statement “the husband should make all the important decisions in the family” suggests that a significant minority of youths have reverted to an endorsement of male supremacy, at least within the family realm. So long as essentialist beliefs about innate differences in men and women persist, efforts to equalize women’s standing with men may remain stalled.

Joanna R. Pepin is in the Department of Sociology, University of Maryland. David A. Cotter is Professor & Chair, Department of Sociology, Union College.