Art by Dave van Patten

Young Men Allegedly Now Want Stay-at-Home-Wives

But it’s not quite as simple as a recent New York Times piece claimed

Bummer alert: Some men are totally fine with women working and being politicians, but at home, still want to rule the roost and make the important decisions and never have to clean that gross part of the toilet base. And it isn’t just crotchety old men who feel this way, either. At least, that’s according to new data that found that men on the younger side of the millennial spectrum have lost enthusiasm for equal power at home — at least, compared to men their age 20 years ago. But it may not be as bad as it sounds.

Historian Stephanie Coontz reports in The New York Times on new intel from the Council of Contemporary Families, which looked at the attitudes of high school seniors over time, and found that some 40 percent of millennial men in the 18 to 25 range today agree with the sentiment that the husband should make all the important decisions in the family. In the piece, called “Do Millennial Men Want Stay-at-Home Wives?” Coontz writes:

In 1994, only 42 percent of high school seniors agreed that the best family was one where the man was the main income earner and the woman took care of the home. But in 2014, 58 percent of seniors said they preferred that arrangement. In 1994, fewer than 30 percent of high school seniors thought “the husband should make all the important decisions in the family.” By 2014, nearly 40 percent subscribed to that premise.

But that’s not all! In 1994, some 83 percent of men said they didn’t think the man needed to be the primary breadwinner, but by 2014, only 55 percent said so. Coontz runs through a number of reasons this sense of gender progress could be freezing up. Diminished earning power for men might be one. Perhaps young men saw their fathers suffer through the financial crisis. Perhaps men feel that for every step women take forward, they take a step back in job losses. Coontz goes on to note that some millennial men surveyed have even said they think everything’s been done for an equal workplace for men and women, so we can stop tweaking it already.

“Are we facing a stall or even a turnaround in the movement toward gender equality?” Coontz asks. She’s asked the question before. In 2013, she noted that attitudes on equality were lagging:

But during the second half of the 1990s and first few years of the 2000s, the equality revolution seemed to stall. Between 1994 and 2004, the percentage of Americans preferring the male breadwinner/female homemaker family model actually rose to 40 percent from 34 percent. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of full-time working mothers who said they would prefer to work part time increased to 60 percent from 48 percent. In 1997, a quarter of stay-at-home mothers said full-time work would be ideal. By 2007, only 16 percent of stay-at-home mothers wanted to work full time.

But when she wrote that in 2013, Pew research had found that millennial men really, really wanted to be equal partners and fathers. Studies found that most young fathers and men thought child care should be split equally, and that the best marriages involved men and women taking care of the house together. It’s just that the reality was much different: Two-parent households still require both parents to work, in most cases, and sharing everything tends to leave everyone burned out. Coontz points to this — young couples who see just how hard it is to raise a family equally may decide it’s easier when one person just puts their nose to the grindstone at work, and the other person does it at home.

There are other reasons millennial men who might want things to be equal might end up thinking it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Other studies have found that millennial men have more egalitarian attitudes than previous generations, yet acknowledge they just can’t quite be the dads they aspire to be. They too, want it all — to be “hands-on fathers as well as breadwinners,” as Claire Cain Miller wrote last year in a look at millennial dads. But workplaces may reward men with more pay when they have kids, but penalize them in terms of career advancement when they try to lead more flexible work lives. When men and women discover it’s simply too hard to negotiate that, they end up in a situation that looks pretty traditional, because the world still rewards couples where men work hard and women stay flexible.

Of course, another theory about why millennial men might think traditional roles in the home make more sense these days is that they’re still incredibly sexist and should be ignored.

Certainly some of them are — some people, even in the face of sweeping social change, will cling tight to retrograde notions.

But before we close the book on it, we should note that this doesn’t seem to be what’s really happening here. Over at sociology blog Scatterplot, Emily Beam, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Vermont, notes that all the hullabaloo over this study painting millennial men as Ward Cleavers is misleading. The real story? “You can’t say a lot about millennials based on talking to 66 men,” Beam writes. She continues:

The GSS surveys are pretty small — about 2,000–3,000 per wave — so once you split by sample, and then split by age, and then exclude the older millennials (age 26–34) who don’t show any negative trend in gender equality, you’re left with cells of about 60–100 men ages 18–25 per wave.

This take, and others weighing in with more skepticism about how the data was interpreted, led the Times to update their post:

Update: After this article was posted, 2016 data from the General Social Survey became available, adding some nuance to this analysis. The latest numbers show a rebound in young men’s disagreement with the claim that male-breadwinner families are superior. The trend still confirms a rise in traditionalism among high school seniors and 18-to-25-year-olds, but the new data shows that this rise is no longer driven mainly by young men, as it was in the General Social Survey results from 1994 through 2014.

In other words, yes, traditionalism is alive as it always has been, but it’s a small group of people, and possibly temporary. What still remains true based on most other data is that most other people realize is that whether we like it or not, it takes two incomes to make a family go. It might not be easy, and we might be hitting snags all along the way, but we’d be much better off tweaking workplace and family leave policies to meet these couples where they’re at, and not waste too much time going apeshit over millennials on the internet.