The modern world still isn’t ready for successful women.
As more women entered the labor force in the last quarter of the 20th century, their children became more familiar with working mothers. This might make you think that Millennials and members of Generation Z are cheerleaders for feminist principles.
“But that’s not really the case,” says Brittany Dernberger, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, who co-authored a recent paper on 12th graders’ attitudes toward relationships and work since the 1970s. Today, young men and women say that the most desirable relationship is a traditional marriage, where the husband works full-time and the wife’s career comes second or not at all.
From 1976 to 2014, teenagers polled by the Monitoring the Future survey became more accepting of women working more but hardly more eager for women’s work to come first. For example, in the late ’70s, 80 percent of teenagers said that wives working full-time was “not at all acceptable.” Four decades later, that number had fallen to 30 percent. But in that time, the share of teenagers who said that mothers working full-time was “desirable” increased just two points—from a measly 3 percent to an equally measly 5 percent. There was little difference between the attitudes of young men and young women in the survey. “Young people are open to a variety of marital arrangements, but what they desire is still very traditional,” Dernberger says.
According to Dernberger, the rise in “acceptability” may be a result of economic anxiety, not progressive feminism. Black teenagers have historically embraced dual-earner households more than their white peers, she says, perhaps because they were more likely to grow up in families in which both parents had to work to make ends meet. As more white families have found themselves in that situation, white teens have moved closer to the position of their black peers.
The rising support for dual-earner households, then, may reflect that more young men think “working wives are necessary to afford a modern life,” not “I look forward to cherishing my future wife’s career.”
Perhaps, you’re thinking, American teenagers are mired in gender traditionalism because American capitalism has made it impossible for women, and especially working mothers, to prioritize a career on their own terms. Surely things would be different in a country with considerably more welfare spending, higher unionization rates to protect workers, cheap public child care to give new mothers their time back, and federally paid parental leave to level the playing field between fathers and mothers. Like in Sweden.
But even in one of the world’s most famous social-democratic paradises, a tension persists between career success and family life. A new paper from the Swedish researchers Olle Folke and Johanna Rickne looked at how career milestones affect marriages in their country. It found that certain kinds of promotions nearly double the rate of divorce for women, but not for men.