The New Knight in Shining Armor

by Stew Friedman

The stories we tell children transmit cultural values. Based on the surprising results of a new study my colleagues and I conducted of two generations of Wharton School graduates, I bet that today’s boys and girls are hearing new kinds of stories about men and women than the ones you heard as child from your parents.

BabyBustCover+Border2 (2)That’s because men are becoming more egalitarian. Today’s male hero—key to the cultural changes needed to enable greater freedom for women in all spheres of life—is not the gallant warrior but the nurturing caretaker. Much has been said about how to help women succeed, but a new kind of bravery in men must be as much a part of the story as the career-triumphant woman.

In surveying two generations of Wharton college students as they graduated—Gen Xers in 1992 and Millennials in 2012—we observed that now many more men than in the past expect to lean in at home. Here’s how one male 2012 graduate put it: “Since family is such a priority for me, I think it only makes sense for me to be open to the idea [of being a primary caregiver] and consider it. It’s just a matter of my being—I don’t know what the word is—brave enough, confident enough to realize that family is the thing that is the most important to me. And so if that’s my priority and my love, why would I not…?”

Men and women are now more aligned about how to navigate who in a dual-career relationship should focus on their careers and when they should do so. Today’s young men don’t merely accept women in the workforce, they expect to see women as peers in the workforce. Too, men are now more cognizant of the impending difficulties they themselves will face in resolving conflicts between work and family in their own lives. Those young men who are thinking about having children see engaged fatherhood as a way of contributing to society. These changes are leaps forward for mankind, with positive repercussions for women and children.

We asked whether one partner should work part time or stay home to take care of the pair’s young children. In 1992, this question yielded a significant gender gap, with men much more likely than women to say that, indeed, one parent should be home with young children. By 2012, this imbalance had disappeared, and the convergence in attitudes was due to fewer men believing that one partner should cut back on his or her career to care for children.

Men today are less likely than those from a generation back to think that children whose mothers are employed suffer because their mothers are not there when they need them. In 2012 there was no difference between men and women on this question. Men in 1992 were more likely than women to think that one partner should ramp off the career track for the sake of children, but there is no longer a gender gap on this issue because fewer men subscribe to this view. Women today may be bemoaning the continuing gender gap in pay and career advancement, and rightly so, but young men have unquestionably changed their own views on gender roles. “My dream job,” said one student at the start of one of my classes last year, “is to be a stay-at-home dad.” I had never before heard that from a Wharton student. And our surveys along with other studies show that his wasn’t a lone voice in the wilderness.

Twenty years ago there was wide divergence between men and women; now there’s more agreement about what it takes to make long-term relationships work. This convergence of attitudes promises greater collaboration, mutual support, and more freedom to choose from among a wide variety of roles that men and women can play in their lives. Millennial men have embraced the idea that women are in the workforce and that the kids will be all right.

But despite this tremendous progress, I document a stark discovery from this study—the rate of graduates who plan to have children has dropped by nearly half over the past 20 years. In many ways, this is more good news, revealing there is a greater freedom of choice now. But the findings also reveal that there are new constraints limiting men’s and women’s options for parenthood.

Because they expect greater parity in career opportunities and commitments, young men today are increasingly motivated to experiment with new models for how both partners can have more of what each wants in life. Traditional gender stereotypes are prisons for men, too, and hold many men back from trying new approaches to work and family life (as well documented recently by Joan Williams and her colleagues in the Journal of Social Issues). They need help. It’s time for our social and educational policy and our companies and communities to better support a 50/50 world, so we can all be part of the revolution in work and family.

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