I recently read this article about how Millennials are less likely than the previous generation to believe in egalitarian households. Some even explicitly say that they prefer women within a relationship to perform more of the domestic responsibilities. Different scholars have offered various explanations for this study, including shifting attitudes reflected in the latest election or men’s loss of dominance in the workforce, but Stephanie Coontz’s suggestion is the most intriguing to me: that the young people being surveyed may be forming their beliefs from having watched their own families struggle to achieve a work-life balance.
Coontz argues that the United States lags (way) behind in offering solutions for better work-family balance than most other countries. In part, because of a lack of serious and extensive family/work-friendly legislation, people and companies have been trying to engineer their own successful balance. Just this past weekend, one woman wrote about her experience of taking her baby to work, which is becoming a trend, according to the article. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, in part because of her personal family tragedy, is now beginning to rethink her advice to lean in, acknowledging the more complex pieces of the work-life puzzle. Professor Robert Kelly received international attention when his children crashed his live interview with the BBC. People could relate to his struggle to engage in a serious work event with his children in the background. Less attention, as usual, is generally given to those in the lowest-paid jobs in our society, where work-family conflict is not simply a lifestyle challenge, but a lifetime crisis.
I think about my own family-work balance and worry that my children will feel the same way as these Millennials. As much as I’ve had tons of support (I live with my parents, who act as additional caregivers), I always feel an imbalance between my work and obligations to my family. My children are disappointed when I miss a school event (though I try to attend most). When I accidently place a homework folder in the wrong child’s book bag, I blame myself even if I know, in theory, it should be the child’s responsibility.
Recently, when I was talking to my friends about their daughters’ ambitions, we were surprised to discover that all of our daughters talked about wanting to be a mom first and then finding a job that they can do in addition to their primary role as caregiver. My daughters frequently ask me about future possible jobs and how many hours they each require. Our kids are all under ten years old, and my friends and I were surprised by their attention to their future work-life balance.
In some ways, this may be a good thing; perhaps their thinking about balance this early will allow them to grow into becoming leaders who find a better way than our generation has. In other ways, though, it’s sad that they already see this balance as a problem, and that they are thinking at this early age about the limits they will have to face. Let’s work to pass policies that will reduce those limits, so that they do not have to face the same challenges in the future that we do now.