Hey, the Gender-Role Revolution Started Way Before the Millennial Generation

The problem with saying that young people today are in "a generation of adjustment" when it comes to women in the workplace.

Bella Abzug participates in a pro-equal rights demonstration in 1980. (AP Images)

Millennial men and women face unprecedented changes in workplace gender roles. True or false?

Peggy Drexler writing at the Daily Beast, seems to think the answer is "true." She argues that "for men born after 1980, theirs is a generation of adjustment." She adds, "They have seen a rebuilding of architectures of support in everything from girl's sports to female-only scholarships to the broad encouragement for females to break down barriers." She then goes on to talk to some millennial men, who, it turns out, have some mixed feelings about women's advances in the workplace.

It's certainly true that gender roles have been changing in the last 35 years. But when you say that the millennials are "a generation of adjustment", the implication is that theirs is especially a generation of adjustment—that they are adjusting in a way that few have adjusted before.

This isn't true. The fact is, the adjustments that millennials are making are part of a long trend towards integrating women into the workplace that began, not with them, but with the generations preceding them. In Marriage, A History, from 2005, Stephanie Coontz points out that "Every single decade of the twentieth century has seen an increase in the proportion of women in the workforce." That trend accelerated after World War II, when there were lots of low-paid clerical and sales jobs to fill—and kept accelerating through the 1960s.

As a result, the family and its relationship to work changed drastically from the 1950s to the 1970s. Post-war, the two-person family with one breadwinner became both possible and normative in a way that, Coontz shows, it had never been before, and never was again. In the 1950s, Coontz says, surveys showed that most Americans believed that people who were single by choice were "sick" or "immoral". By 1975, only 25 percent thought that. The major transformation in attitudes towards gender, marriage, the family and, by implication, work, happened before the millennials were born. If there is a "generation of adjustment", that generation is not the millennials. It's the folks who grew up between the '50s and the '70s—the baby boomers and some of their kids.

What's wrong with the Daily Beast saying otherwise? What does it matter, really, if people do a little hand-waving about changing gender roles and work and the millennials? After all, gender roles are still in flux. What's the harm?

The harm, I'd argue, is that framing changing gender roles as a phenomenon tied to the millennials in particular obscures why those roles are changing. The massive shift in the relationship between women and work since the '50s has not been caused by college scholarships for women, nor by leaning in, as the Beast article has it. It's been caused, instead by two major, obvious, and often ignored facts. The first is contraception. And the second is a decisive and lasting drop in the standard of living.

Contraception is today so taken for granted that I think people forget how radically it has transformed not just women's lives, but society as a whole. As Coontz points out, in the 1960s, "For the first time in history any woman with a modicum of educational and economic resources could, if she wanted to, separate sex from childbirth, lifting the specter of unwanted pregnancy that had structured women's lives for thousands of years." And also for the first time in history, women could control their own workforce participation. Instead of having child after child after child, women who didn't want to be celibate (which is the vast majority of owmen) could plan children around their career, rather than vice versa. This puts a rather different spin, for example, on the millennial who Drexler quotes as saying that women are "getting extra support." It's true that in comparison to the rest of recorded history, women are getting more support. But the absolutely most important form that support takes is not some sort of affirmative action. It's the pill—which has, finally, allowed women to compete in the workforce on an equal footing with men.

The drop in the standard of living since the 1950s isn't as revolutionary as contraception, but it's still pretty important. As Coontz argues, during the post-war period it was possible for a husband (it was virtually always a husband) to make enough money to support a wife and family in a middle-class lifestyle. Married women didn't have to work—and so the vast majority of them didn't. Instead they stayed at home and took care of the kids.

Inflation and then globalization have made the one-earner middle-class family an impossibility—and that, in turn, has meant that women, married and unmarried, have had to enter the workforce in large numbers. The impetus for women to go to work is certainly in part that people like Betty Friedan realized that being a housewife was not very fulfilling. But the impetus was also, and importantly, that virtually no one can afford to stay at home and be a housewife anymore. Coontz points out that while purchasing power of average Americans doubled between 1947 and 1973, real wages between 1973 and the late 1980s fell by 27 percent, comparable to the decline during the Great Depression.

All of which makes Drexler's article look hopelessly confused. She's arguing that changing gender roles since the 1980s have put men and women in competition for jobs, stoking some mild male resentment. But what's really put men and women in competition for jobs isn't changing gender roles. It's economic stagnation and a precipitous decline in real wages. And what's needed, therefore, isn't more leaning in by women, or more serious listening to men's complaints about women leaning in. What's needed is some sort of effort to deal with the changing landscape, not of gender, but of class.

Not that gender is irrelevant. On the contrary, much of the unspoken rationale for America's crappy social safety net—with work-based healthcare and no day care and so on—is the continuing image of the 1950s family as an ur-standard. You don't need day care because mom's at home; you don't need government healthcare because all the daddies work. Articles like Drexler's, which erase the past, paradoxically keep those antiquated gender roles around. The "traditional" family is always something we've just left behind, always something we're just adjusting to. The truth, though, is that these changes are of long standing, and the adjustments we need to make have little to do with the ambivalent feelings of male millennials, and a whole lot to do with policy changes that are long, long past their time.