Image: A Black father and child brush their teeth together. Image by Keira Burton licensed under Pexels.

After more than 40 years of progress towards greater gender equality for women, the gender revolution in paid work, housework and childcare has seemingly stalled. Younger generations of women are working less but doing more unpaid childcare and housework at home. At the same time, however, younger generations of men are doing more housework and childcare than their fathers, suggesting a new front in the gender revolution.

Our recently published paper used data from the American Time Use Survey between 2003 to 2018 to follow three generations of mothers and fathers: Baby Boomers (1946–1965), Generation X (1966–1980) and Millennials (1981–2000). Because the data span 15 years we were able to observe an overlap for ages 23 to 37 for Generation X and Millennials and ages 39 to 53 for Generation X and Boomers. We examined how each generation spent their time on care, housework, and paid work.

Surprisingly, we found that much of the progress made by earlier generations of women in the workforce seems to have eroded across newer generations. Generation X and Millennial mothers are spending less time in paid employment than Baby Boomer women at similar ages. This finding confirms recent research that has found women’s participation in the workforce peaked in the mid-1990s. We also find that Millennial mothers on average are spending more time on housework and childcare than previous generations of mothers–a significant reversal of long-term trends.

One explanation for this surprising trend might be the lingering impact of the Great Recession (2008-09) which affected men and women very differently. Men were more likely than women to lose their jobs during the recession, but women had significantly more difficulty getting back into the workforce during the recovery. Young women were very vulnerable during the recession, and this may have continued to affect their labor market participation well after the recession and the recovery.

But this does not explain everything, especially women’s increased time on childcare and housework. It is likely that the soaring cost of childcare in recent decades has meant that families, and in particular women, have had to make a “choice” to stay out of the labor market to provide childcare. The cost of childcare has grown at a significantly faster rate than the cost of other essentials like housing and groceries. The average American family now spends over $10,000 for a child under six in childcare. Our research suggests that Generation X and Millennial mothers have simply reallocated the time they would have spent in paid work in the workplace to unpaid work at home.

But there is some progress.

We find that all fathers across the generations–Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers–have increased their housework and childcare time from 2003 to 2018 with each subsequent generation spending more time in domestic work than the previous. This, we suggest, marks a significant cultural shift and the realization of a widespread ambition for today’s fathers to be better, more engaged than their own. Largely, fathers did this added work on top of their paid work time, which remained stable across generations over this time period. In other words, men across generations are enacting new and more time-intensive fatherhood roles. Fathers are no longer viewing their roles as solely economic providers:  spending greater time involved and engaged in their children’s lives and cooking, cleaning, shopping, and doing laundry. While these increases the time fathers spend on housework and childcare are not enough to close the gap between men and women in domestic labor, they do bode well for the future of gender equality.Fathers across the generations have increased their housework and childcare time…with each subsequent generation spending more time in domestic work than the previous

Big picture, these findings underscore just how tough it is to achieve revolutionary social and cultural change. Women have made leaps and bounds, especially in education where they continue outperform men in degree attainment. However, women shave not been able to maintain progress in the workforce or the home. Men, on the other hand, are doing more than everat home, but it is still not enough to close the gap between them and women. 

These two findings also present questions and great challenges for the future. First, can we win back the gains in women’s workforce participation and reduce the care burden at home? One way is to reduce the costs of childcare to allow mothers to make decisions about how best to organize their work and family life without having to trade time with children for time in the labor market. Greater public investments in childcare may help alleviate the demands on younger women to increase their time in paid work.

Second, and just as importantly, how do we continue the gains of recent generations of fathers? More engaged fathers are critical to advancing gender equality at home. Maintaining and increasing men’s involvement at home will also help alleviate the care burden for women. Childcare costs for the family might be not as high if men were able to do more. Yet, only one in seven Americans believe that fathers should take paternity leave. Although these views are perhaps more common in male-dominated workplaces, they demonstrate lingering stigma against fathers as primary caregivers which can make it more difficult for men to take family leave. Compounding this, men who do take leave often do not take their full paternity leave entitlements.

We have a generation of men who are poised to step into caregiving work and roles. Now, we just need to give men the institutional support to make more engaged fatherhood the new normal.

Key references and Recommendations for Further Reading

Paula England, Andrew Levine, and Emma Mishel. (2020). “Progress Toward Gender Equality in the United States has Slowed or Stalled.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences117(13), 6990-6997.

The article examines multiple indicators of gender progress–employment, education, occupational segregation and pay–between 1970 and 2018 to show that there’s been significant progress towards gender equality over almost 50 years but this progress has slowed in recent decades.

Frances Goldschieder, Eva Bernhardt, and Trude Lappegård. 2015. “The Gender Revolution: A Framework for Understanding Changing Family and Demographic Behavior.” Population and Development Review 41(2):207–39.

This article examines trends associated with the second demographic transition (SDT) and compares them with the on-going gender revolution, arguing that there may be some improvements and progress in some areas and declines in others. The authors make a timely intervention that demands we consider the gender revolution as two parts – women’s progress in the public sphere and men’s in the private.

Buddy Scarborough, Ray Sin, and Barbara Risman. 2019. “Attitudes and the Stalled Gender Revolution: Egalitarianism, Traditionalism, and Ambivalence from 1977 through 2016.” Gender & Society 33(2):173–200.

The article examines attitudinal data from the General Social Survey from 1977 to 2016 to show that there has been increase in the number of people who support both gender equality the public and private spheres. However, there remains a significant number of people who are ambivalent about gender equality. Recent generations of men and women hold the most egalitarian views.

Dr. Brendan Churchill is a sociologist and expert in gender, work and youth from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

Professor Leah Ruppanner is a sociologist and gender scholar from the University of Melbourne.

Associate Professor Sabino Kornrich is a sociologist and researches inequality, gender and the family from NYU Abu Dhabi.