Young people today have become much more open-minded about gender roles — it shows up in their attitudes about pronouns, politics and sports. But in one area, change has been minimal. They are holding on to traditional views about who does what at home.
A new survey from Gallup found that among opposite-sex couples, those ages 18 to 34 were no more likely than older couples to divide most household chores equitably. And a sociology study published last month found that when high school seniors were asked about their ideal family arrangement with young children, almost a quarter said it was for the man to work full time and the woman to stay home, a larger share than desired any other arrangement.
The fact that home life doesn’t look all that different from half a century ago surprises researchers, because in most other ways, attitudes about gender roles have changed a lot. There’s now almost universal support for women to pursue careers or political office. Women get more education than men. And young people are much more accepting of people not identifying as either a man or a woman.
Both new studies were based on surveys that have been repeated over time, and they show that women now do a little less housework and child care, and men do a little more. But a significant gap remains — women spend about an hour more a day than men on housework, and an hour more on child care, other research shows.
The disparity affects other aspects of women’s equality: The additional time women spend on domestic labor, particularly related to children, is a leading cause of the gender gaps in pay and promotions at work.
“If young people can’t even envision a model of what men’s time at home might look like, that’s evidence that our beliefs about gender are really strong and sticky,” said Joanna Pepin, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin and an author of the recently published study, with Brittany Dernberger, a sociology doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland. “That’s yet another thing that’s getting in the way of social change.”
Researchers have different ideas about why the division of labor at home has been so slow to change, despite women’s other gains. One of the simplest explanations: Men might be happy to have a partner bringing in another paycheck, but not happy to do more chores.
Intensive parenting — maximizing the time spent engaged with and teaching children — has also become the norm. Working mothers today spend as much time doing activities with their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s. At the same time, many jobs require longer, inflexible hours. (Parents do less housework overall, though: about eight hours less each week than they did in the 1960s.)
The United States has none of the nationwide public policies that make the work-family juggle easier in other countries, like paid family leave or public preschool.
Norms about what men are supposed to do also have an effect, researchers say — starting in childhood, when boys do fewer chores than girls do. Masculinity is strongly tied to earning an income and avoiding things that are considered feminine. Studies have shown that men can feel threatened if their wives earn more than them, and that to compensate, men who feel this way might do even less housework.
“To be a good man means to be employed,” said Sarah Thébaud, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “That doesn’t mean they don’t want to be involved — they do. But the issue is we’re pushing up against these prescriptive beliefs about gender.”
The authors of the new sociology study suggested another explanation: economic uncertainty. Many young people face unstable employment, student debt and rising housing and child care costs. Perhaps young families are open to women’s equality outside the home because they need a second income, they said, but their attitudes about gender roles haven’t actually evolved as much.
Or, they might want a parent at home with young children because they embrace intensive parenting. It is also driven by financial concerns — that it’s no longer a safe bet that children will do as well as their parents. That could explain why men’s time doing child care has increased more than their time doing housework, the researchers said.
Their study, which was published in the journal Sociological Science, was based on a national survey called Monitoring the Future, administered each year to high school seniors. The researchers analyzed data from 1976 to 2014, including 75,573 12th graders, between 2,000 and 4,000 a year. They focused on a question asking respondents to imagine a future in which they were married (it assumed to someone of the opposite sex) with children of preschool age, and to rate various work and child care arrangements.
Across all survey years, the largest share of respondents said the most desirable arrangement was men working full time and women staying home. In 2014, 11% said both parents working full time was most desirable, up from 4% in 1976. A majority said a father staying home was unacceptable.
Young people have grown significantly more open-minded over time about women working: The share who preferred having a family with a stay-at-home mother was 23% in 2014, down from 44% in 1976, and the share who said that arrangement was unacceptable increased. Also, they have become much more likely to say alternative options are acceptable, like one parent working part time and the other working full time, or both working full time.
The biggest change has been among white men — about one in six now say they prefer a traditional arrangement, while a majority said that in 1976. The desirability of intensive parenting has grown for everyone, but especially for white women. Black women have been most in favor of dual-earner arrangements throughout the years.
Young people whose mothers work full time have been more likely to want a similar arrangement. Those who attend religious services weekly or who live in the South have been less open to women working full time. These patterns have not changed over the years.
A flaw in surveying high school seniors about these issues is that they are not yet working and parenting. But other research has shown that young people in the throes of the work-life juggle indeed choose more traditional roles in the home.
The Gallup surveys on housework were done in 2019, 2007 and 1996, of opposite-sex couples who were married or living together. The gender gap in many chores has shrunk slightly over that period, but has remained, and for the most part, the share of respondents who say they share tasks equally has been flat.
In the most recent surveys, of 3,062 people, there was very little difference by age in who did the chores, whether the couples were in their 20s or 50s. Women were much more likely to do the bulk of daily, indoor chores, like cooking and cleaning, and men were more likely to do more occasional, outdoor chores, like yard work and car upkeep.
One area in which young couples were more likely to be equal than older couples was in daily child care, though women were still likely to do more of it.
The Gallup survey did not ask how people wanted to divide chores — perhaps they were content with the arrangement. It’s not realistic or efficient to equally divide all tasks. And it’s not always based on gender: Research on same-sex couples has shown that one person tends to do more at home and less at work once they have children.
But in opposite-sex couples, it’s very often the woman doing the bulk of the domestic duties, especially related to children, even if she has a career. Making relationships more equal inside the home could have far-reaching effects outside of it, too.