From 1976 to 2014, 12th graders polled by the Monitoring the Future survey became more accepting of women working more but hardly more eager for women’s work to come first. For example, in the late ’70s, 80 percent of teenagers said that wives working full-time was “not at all acceptable.” Four decades later, that number had fallen to just 30 percent. But in that time, the share of teenagers who said that mothers working full-time was “desirable” increased just two points—from a measly 3 percent to equally measly 5 percent. There was little difference between the attitudes of young men and young women in the survey. “Young people are open to a variety of marital arrangements, but what they desire is still very traditional,” Dernberger says.
According to Dernberger, the rise in “acceptability” may be a result of economic anxiety, not progressive feminism. Black teenagers have historically embraced dual-earner households more than their white peers, she says, perhaps because they were more likely to grow up in families in which both parents had to work to make ends meet. As more white families have found themselves in that situation, white teens have moved closer to the position of their black peers.
The rising support for dual-earner households, then, may reflect that more young men think “working wives are necessary to afford a modern life,” not “I look forward to cherishing my future wife’s career.”