The attitude of the millennial generation (those born from 1982 to 2003) that will have most impact on the daily lives of Americans is the distinctive and historically unprecedented belief that there are no inherently male or female roles in society. This belief stems directly from millennials’ experience growing up in families in which the mother and father took on roughly equal responsibilities for raising their offspring. As men and women enter the workforce on an equal footing, this generation’s belief in gender neutrality will force major changes in our laws governing the work place and its relationship to family life.
Historically, “civic” generations like millennials have tended to emphasize distinctions between the sexes, while “idealist” generations, such as today’s boomers, have advanced the cause of women’s rights. This includes the transcendental generation that founded the feminist movement in the 1840s, the missionary-generation suffragists in the early 20th century, and of course the boomers who revitalized the women’s movement in the 1960s.
By comparison, as Neil Howe and William Strauss, the founders of generational theory point out, the 18th-century civic republican generation, which included many of our founders, “associated ‘effeminacy’ with corruption and disruptive passion, ‘manliness’ with reason and disinterested virtue.” During World War II, as the men in civic-minded 20th-century GI generation joined the military, many women went to work in America’s factories, assuming jobs traditionally held by males. But at war’s end, willingly or unwillingly, most of Rosie the Riveter’s sisters returned to their traditional roles as wives and mothers.
By contrast, today’s millennial women are refusing to accept any restrictions, based on their gender or color, on what they might be allowed to do and what they may be able to achieve. The result has been vastly improved educational and income opportunities for women and a greater demand for the ability to blend work with the rest of life’s responsibilities and pleasures from both sexes.
Although the civically oriented GI generation was notable for providing equal opportunities for women and men to attend high school, the millennial generation is the first in U.S. history in which women are more likely to attend and graduate from college and professional school than are men. In 2006, nearly 58 percent of college students were women. By 2016, women are projected to earn 64 percent of associate’s degrees, 60 percent of bachelor’s, 63 percent of master’s, and 56 percent of doctorates. These achievements have produced a generation of self-confident women who, unlike many of their boomer mothers and grandmothers, do not see themselves in conflict or competition with men.
All of this has led some male millennials to rethink the entire concept of masculinity. It’s becoming increasingly clear, for instance, that male millennials will take greater advantage of paternity-leave opportunities to bond with their newborn children and support the mothers of those children. Remarkably, in sharp distinction to the usual partisan rancor these days, polls show that majorities of Republicans (62 percent), Democrats (92 percent), and independents (71 percent) now support the idea of paid paternity leave. The federal budget already includes money to help states start paternity-leave programs. Under pressure from the growing presence of millennials in the electorate, a paid paternity- and maternity-leave program is likely to become an employee-funded federal insurance program, similar to Social Security, which could be financed by a small payroll tax increase of about three-tenths of 1 percent.
The biggest changes for American men will come as millennials become the predominant generation in the workplace. Economic necessity will force young men to train for and work in a range of careers, such as nursing and teaching, that previously have been considered women’s work. As the blurring of occupational gender distinctions becomes commonplace, millennials will demand that employers provide opportunities for more work-life blending. With both parents equally involved in career and family, employers who wish to attract top talent will have no other choice but to accommodate the generation’s demand for such things as telecommuting, flexible hours, and child care. Politicians who support policies designed to encourage the provision of such benefits will receive a positive reception from their millennial constituents.
The result will be a new national consensus on what it means to be a man or a woman, and a new respect for the full participation of both sexes in all aspects of American family life.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are coauthors of Millennial Makeover: My Space, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (2008) and Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation Is Remaking America” (2011). Watch their exchange about millenials’ perspectives on gender.