A Woman and Man Sitting at a Cafe, Talking to Each other

Millennial Men Aren’t the Dads They Thought They’d Be

Ruby Lynn

Kunal Modi, 30, and Anita Gupta, 28, have been married a year and both have careers. They say they want their partnership to remain equal when they have children

The New York Times
July 30, 2015
By Claire Cain Miller

Young men today have aspirations of being hands-on fathers as well as breadwinners — supportive husbands who also do dishes.

But as they enter that more responsibility-filled stage of life, something changes: Their roles often become much more traditional.

Millennial men — ages 18 to early 30s — have much more egalitarian attitudes about family, career and gender roles inside marriage than generations before them, according to a variety of research by social scientists. Yet they struggle to achieve their goals once they start families, researchers say. Some researchers think that’s because workplace policies have not caught up to changing expectations at home.

“The majority of young men and women say they would ideally like to equally share earning and caregiving with their spouse,” said Sarah Thébaud, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But it’s pretty clear that we don’t have the kinds of policies and flexible work options that really facilitate egalitarian relationships.”

Work-family policies strongly affected women’s choices, but not men’s. Ms. Thébaud said that occurred because women disproportionately benefit from the policies since they are expected to be caregivers, while men are stigmatized for using them.

Ms. Thébaud was the co-author of a study, published in February in the American Sociological Review, that was the first major examination of the effect workplace policies have on the relationship preferences of young men and women. It found that men and women ages 18 to 32 have egalitarian attitudes about gender roles, across education and income levels. But when faced with a lack of family-friendly policies, most fell back on traditional roles.

Other researchers have found similar patterns. Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University, found that young men want equal relationships but find them hard to pull off in the real world. It becomes especially difficult as work has become more demanding with round-the-clock hours and unpredictable on-call availability.

Surveys of young people that compare those who are childless with those who are parents also show a striking shift post-children. Millennial men have the least traditional notions about gender roles of any generation or time period, according to the most recent installment of a continuing study from the Families and Work Institute. Only 35 percent of employed millennial men without children said they thought men should be breadwinners and women should be caregivers.

Yet those who had children had different attitudes. Of millennial men who were already fathers, 53 percent said it was better for mothers and fathers to take on traditional roles.

Surveys of college-educated professionals by the Center for Talent Innovation, a research group on work and talent development, found that among millennial men without children, 24 percent expected to shoulder most of the child care responsibilities. Of those with children, only 8 percent did.

“They say, ‘I didn’t realize how much of a ding it would be on my career,’” said Laura Sherbin, the center’s director of research. “It’s what women have been saying for years and years.”

The research shows that when something has to give in the work-life juggle, men and women respond differently. Women are more likely to use benefits like paid leave or flexible schedules, and in the absence of those policies, they cut back on work. Men work more.

“With millennial men and women too, life hasn’t hit the fan, so we’re still seeing more idealized expectations,” said Pamela Stone, a sociologist at Hunter College. “These are couples that are negotiating a work and family world grounded on an old model that really called for men to step up to the breadwinning role big time, and women to step back from employment and into more traditional roles.”

“It’s not that they’ve thrown over their ideals, it’s just enacting those are much harder given the workplace and cultural structures they’re encountering,” she said.

Kunal Modi, 30, and Anita Gupta, 28, say they know how hard it might be to live up to their ideals. Married for a year, he is a consultant and she works at a health care start-up. They don’t have children yet, but say they want their partnership to remain equal when they do.

“It’s something we constantly talk about,” Ms. Gupta said. “I think it needs to be a joint discussion: where we are in our careers right now, what makes sense caring for children and families and how to split up those responsibilities.”

Mr. Modi said it was important for men to talk about their goals at work and not just at home, such as by asking for paternity leave. “As much as our worldview has become much more egalitarian, we run into these institutions that still don’t reflect that shift in our expectations and the world we want to live in,” he said.

The American Sociological Review study, which Ms. Thébaud wrote with David Pedulla, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, tried to measure how workplace policies influenced people’s relationship preferences.

They surveyed a representative sample of unmarried men and women ages 18 to 34 about their desires for their future work and family arrangements. They randomly divided them into three groups and gave them different scenarios, with varying degrees of supportive policies.

When offered supportive policies, 95 percent of college-educated women chose an egalitarian relationship, 30 percentage points more than when they were not offered supportive policies. Seventy-five percent of college-educated men did. Of those who did not go to college, 82 percent of women and 68 percent of men chose an equal partnership.

Yet in the face of constraints that made equality difficult, their choices aligned with traditional gender roles.

Then, 64 percent of college-educated women opted for a so-called neo-traditional arrangement — the man is the primary breadwinner and the woman is the primary caregiver, though they share some of those tasks. So did 87 percent of less-educated men.

Less-educated women were more likely to choose self-reliance, or becoming the sole breadwinner. Highly educated men chose the breadwinner role and neo-traditional role in equal numbers.

Ms. Gerson’s research, which was summarized in her book “The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work and Family,” found similar results. It was conducted through in-depth interviews of people ages 18 to 32 living in the New York area.

Eighty percent of women and nearly 70 percent of men had egalitarian ideals. But when asked what they thought would realistically happen, there was a gender divide. Women said they would choose self-reliance, while men chose a neotraditional relationship.

The obstacle, she said, is that even as young men and women say they want to share responsibilities, work and child rearing have both become more demanding.

“Rather than creating more flexible notions about what a career means, there’s increasing pressure to have to put in more time at work,” she said. “Another paradox of the 21st century is that even as the caretakers of the past, women, have gone to work, the standards we apply to parents are greater than ever.”

In their study, Ms. Thébaud and Mr. Pedulla suggested that workplace policies might have a greater effect on men if they were specifically aimed at them, such as paternity leave policies that reward men for using them. Another approach might be to create policies that change work for both sexes, like reining in long hours.

Changes in the way Americans work come more slowly than shifts in personal expectations. But now that millennials are the largest generation in the work force, and as they climb the executive ranks, they might shape policies that more fully reflect the way they want to balance their lives.