Saturday, April 01, 2017

Do Millennial Men Want Stay-at-Home Wives?

That is the best clickbait the headline writer found to describe Stephanie Coontz' opinion piece in the New York Times.

Coontz writes about the findings of opinion surveys which suggest that the age group between 18 and 25 in the US might hold more patriarchal views about the family than older age group:

Using a survey that has monitored the attitudes of high school seniors for nearly 40 years, the sociologists Joanna Pepin and David Cotter find that the proportion of young people holding egalitarian views about gender relationships rose steadily from 1977 to the mid-1990s but has fallen since. 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.
A different survey found a similar trend, in this case concentrated mainly among men. In 1994, 83 percent of young men rejected the superiority of the male-breadwinner family. By 2014 that had fallen to 55 percent. Women’s disagreement fell far less, from 85 percent in 1994 to 72 percent in 2014. Since 1994, young women’s confidence that employed women are just as good mothers as stay-at-home moms has continued to inch up, but young men’s has fallen. In fact, by 2014, men aged 18 to 25 were more traditional than their elders.

Weird stuff.  I read both the linked study summaries and noticed that the second one used a very small sample for the age group 18-25 (n=200) (1) so I'm not going to consider its findings any further, but instead concentrate on the Pepin-Cotter findings.

So what are those findings about high school seniors in general?

Pepin and Cotter note that the support for equal gender rights in the public sphere is very widespread, as shown by their Figure 1:

Their support for working mothers as "every bit as good mothers" has also risen over time in the high school seniors surveys (2):

Those are excellent news, right?

But as is often the case, we are not interested in the "dog bit a man" stories, but in the "man bit a dog" stories, and, indeed, we can find one of those here, by analyzing the level of agreement to these questions:  "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 the family,"  and "The husband should make all the important decisions in the family."

The third Pepin-Cotter table shows the percentage of those who disagree with those statements:

If we view the upper curve/lines in the last figure from the proper angle, it tells us that the majority of high school seniors do not think that the husband should make all the important family decisions.

But it's troubling that the percentage who so believe appears to be rising.

The bottom curve/lines are more troubling, though the results might have been different (or their explanation different) if the survey had replaced the words "man" and "woman" with "one partner" and "the other partner." (3)

So what might explain that last finding?

Pepin and Cotter argue that their overall findings suggest a combination of gender egalitarinism in the public sphere and an increasing percentage of the young who employ gender essentialism in the private sphere (4), at home, though they also point out that fathers' participation in hands-on child-rearing is increasing.

Coontz suggest that the lack of proper labor market support for workers with children in the United States creates this apparent attempt to turn the clock backward on women's rights:

When young Americans are asked about their family aspirations, large majorities choose equally shared breadwinning and child-rearing if the option of family-friendly work policies is mentioned.
Furthermore, the financial advantages of dual-earner couples over male-breadwinner families have increased significantly in recent years, and an unequal division of housework has become progressively more damaging to relationships. The minority of couples who do manage to divide chores and child-rearing equally report higher levels of marital and sexual satisfaction, and more frequent sex, than do men and women in homes where the wife does most of the housework and child care.
But most young parents will not be able to sustain egalitarian values and practices without better work-family policies. Those should be possible to attain, given that more than 80 percent of Americans — and strong majorities of both sexes — support paid leave for mothers, with 70 percent favoring it for fathers, too. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, that rises to 91 percent favoring paid leave for mothers and 82 percent favoring it for fathers.

Dan Cassino proposes old masculinity scripts as the reason:

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.

I can think of several additional explanations (5).  But whatever the reasons for a possible change in the trend line (it might just end up a blip), it's crucial not to assume that gains won in the past cannot be taken away, especially given the new Trump era.

(1)  I emailed professor Cotter and he told me that the sample sizes for the first survey vary between 1106 to 3180, depending on the survey year.

It should also be noted that the young men express more sexist opinions, on average, than the young women, but the trend lines in both appear the same so that the distance between them has not changed.

And a final note about the survey:  As far as I can tell, the survey asks questions about only heterosexual marriages.

(2)  It should be viewed as mind-blowing, but is not so viewed, that none of these surveys ever ask if a father who works full time can properly bond with his children.  Thus, all the statistical work which gives the appearance of objectivity to these types of findings is not objective at all, but based on our societal biases.

Asking the questions in only one direction (about mothers) is probably going to elicit more stereotypical answers from the respondents.  It is a type of priming, if you will.

(3)  See my comments to the second footnote.  What if we had asked the seniors if it would be better for all concerned if the man stayed at home and the woman achieved outside the home?  Or preferably both forms of the question.

What happened around 1995?  That seems to be the crucial year here.

(4)  This combination is, of course, impossible in practice.  If women are supposed to stay at home and if men are supposed to make the important decisions then married women cannot have equal rights in the labor force and women cannot become leaders of countries if they are married, because their husbands would be the real leaders in that case.

(5)  In particular, the possibility that the results are due to demographic change rather than changes in the underlying trend line.  As a 2014 Pew survey found, being a stay-at-home mother is more common among Asian and Hispanic families than it is among white and black non-Hispanic families, and those differences may partly reflect differences in the underlying gender norms, though they may also be due to language and skills-mismatch problems:

Most children today, regardless of race or ethnicity, are growing up with a working mother. Asian and Hispanic children are the most likely to be raised by stay-at-home mothers—37% and 36%, respectively, were in 2012. That compares with 26% of white children and 23% of black children.

ADDED LATER:  Here's another criticism of the Pepin-Cotter study, though it seems to use the GSS data which was not used by Pepin and Cotter,  but in the second survey Coontz mentions and which I did not cover because of the very small sample sizes for people in that age group.