Millennials are hard to pin down. They’ve been characterized as politically liberal, but turn out to be quite skeptical of government. They’re thought to have Tweet-length attention spans, but turn out to read more books than older adults. They’re sometimes described as careerist and individualistic, but a certain group of them, at least—high-achieving women—actually prioritizes family over work to a greater extent than their mothers did. The New York Times reports:
A variety of survey data shows that educated, working young women are more likely than those before them to expect their career and family priorities to shift over time.
The surveys highlighted that two generations after women entered the business world in large numbers, it can still be hard for women to work. Even those with the highest career ambitions are more likely than their predecessors to plan to scale back at work at certain times or to seek out flexible jobs.
You might call them the planning generation: Their approach is less all or nothing — climb the career ladder or stay home with children — and more give and take…
Baby boomer women were the first to work in professions in large numbers, and they were less likely to say they planned to interrupt their careers and more likely to say they expected to successfully combine their work and family lives.
Feminists will likely see the shift as evidence that the women’s liberation is still incomplete, while social conservatives are likely to welcome the (modest) move toward more traditional gender norms. But the social picture communicated by the data is probably more complicated than the orthodoxies of either the left or right would allow.
The Times article focuses on three surveys—one of “college educated professionals,” one of business students at Wharton, and one of business students at Harvard. The trend away from full-time working motherhood, in other words, is limited to a narrow and privileged group of American women. Poor and working class women (a disproportionate share of whom are divorced) are less likely to have the luxury of taking time off to spend with their children. While the Times report pitches the data as a story about changing gender norms, they also tell a story about class stratification.
So while the surveys might seem to vindicate the conservative view that many women would opt for part time work or full-time motherhood if given the choice, they also highlight the fact that this choice is not actually available to the majority of the population—in part because of economic inequality and the lack of social support for low-income mothers. And while they might seem to vindicate the feminist view that true parity in the workplace will come about through government intervention and cultural reform, this view is complicated by the fact that even the most high-achieving women, with the most resources at their disposal, in the most socially progressive generation in history, are planning to put their careers on hold to care for their children.
Ultimately, the survey data support the narrative Charles Murray put forward in his 2012 blockbuster book, Coming Apart: that the cultural habits of privileged Americans are looking less and less like those of Americans in the working and middle classes. Whether you are a libertarian or a liberal, a feminist or a conservative, that trend should be a cause for concern.