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‘OK, Gen Z-er’

Conventional Gender Roles Still Popular With American Youth, Study Shows

By Sara Gavin

Woman pouring juice

Photo by Kristin Rogers/Stocksy

A new study shows that young people prefer and even prioritize traditional roles of men as breadwinners and women as homemakers.

This generation of “OK Boomer” memes and school walkouts protesting environmental destruction is known for challenging social norms, but a new study shows that young people aren’t so ready to overturn conventional gender roles.  

Overall, they prefer and even prioritize traditional roles of men as breadwinners and women as homemakers, according to a recent study from Brittany Dernberger, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland and Joanna Pepin Ph.D. ’18, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. The findings, based on nearly 40 years (1976-2014) of responses to a nationally representative sample of high school seniors, were published last month in Sociological Science.

The 17- and 18-year-olds were asked to imagine their future selves married with pre-school-aged children and to consider a variety of possible working arrangements, including: husband works full-time, wife doesn’t work; husband works full-time, wife works about half-time; husband doesn’t work, wife works full-time; husband works about half-time, wife works full-time; both work about half-time; and both work full-time. 

While they showed a greater openness to multiple types of arrangements, a conventional scenario—with a husband working full-time and a wife staying at home—remained the most desired among high school students over time. 

Although there was a substantial decline in favor of this arrangement initially, from 44% in 1976 to around 25% by the 1990s, the numbers have hardly moved since then. Fewer than 5% of youth desired gender atypical scenarios in which the husband does not work or works part-time and the wife works full-time. 

“Continued gender inequality at home and at work is frequently explained by a lack of ‘family-friendly’ policies like paid parental leave and affordable child care,” said Dernberger. “However, these structural constraints are not the only barrier to manifesting equitable relationships. Our findings show just how sticky attitudes about gender continue to be.”

Dernberger and Pepin found attitudes about gender were most in flux from 1976 up to the mid-1990s, and then leveled off. The few meaningful differences between demographic groups suggested these attitudes are quite widespread. However, when comparing views of white and African American youth, they found that African Americans were consistently open to a variety of division-of-labor scenarios throughout the four decades, while white youth became more open over time. 

“While young people may not embrace gender equality to the extent many might assume, we’re not suggesting feminism is dead,” said Pepin. “However, our findings signal that shifts in attitudes about gender roles are happening more slowly than we may have realized and we can’t simply sit back and count on young people to deliver gender equity.”

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