In the United States, like most of the developed world, debates are raging about whether women can "have it all" or need to "lean in." Yet these debates almost never focus on the real issue – that the new economy is creating impossible binds for everyone and no individual strategy can provide a solution. The rise of an economic system based on hi tech and service work has blurred the boundaries between home and work for women and men alike and thereby dismantled the “breadwinner-caregiver bargain” put in place during the industrial revolution.
The good news is that new generations of Americans are responding to this 21st century revolution by affirming a new gender ideal that stresses work-caregiving balance in the context of an egalitarian relationship. My interviews with twenty- and thirty-somethings, reported in The Unfinished Revolution, found that 80 percent of women and 70 percent of men hope to blend the traditional value of lifelong commitment with the modern value of flexible, egalitarian sharing. Mounting evidence from other studies shows similar trends: When it comes to their aspirations, most American women and men want flexibility and equality in their intimate relationships.
Yet there is plenty of bad news as well. Most Americans also believe that this egalitarian ideal is largely out of reach in the current context. At the workplace, the rise of job insecurity has created greater pressures to put in ever longer hours. On the home front, the rise of anxieties about childrearing, coupled with a lack of childcare, has simultaneously increased the pressure to practice intensive parenting. Even though new generations increasingly need and desire egalitarian relationships, new insecurities and pressures have made it even harder to share parenting equally and blend it with a satisfying work life.
How are new generations of Americans responding to this conundrum? In interviews with adults living in “new economy” locales such as Silicon Valley and New York, I have found a variety of strategies emerging to cope with these conflicts and uncertainties. About a third are “reluctant traditionalists,” where fathers are sacrificing family time to manage time-intensive jobs, while another 15 percent are “reversed traditionalists,” where women are providing the bulk of financial support even though they face barriers at work. An additional third are “going it alone” because financial insecurities make it difficult to sustain a relationship; and the remaining 15 percent are “exhausted egalitarians” who are attempting, against the odds, to maintain two demanding jobs while also attempting to share equally at home. Despite their differences, all these strategies entail significant drawbacks – and not for women alone. In the absence of social supports for integrating stable work with parenting involvement, everyone faces difficult and often painful trade-offs.
In an era when insecurity in both jobs and relationships is the new normal, we need to jettison the notion that “having it all” is an unrealistic, selfish goal that only applies to middle-class women. The widespread ideals of equality and balance reflect universal hopes that are increasingly essential for thriving societies as well as thriving relationships. In the U.S., as elsewhere, these urgent needs can only be met by creating social supports that dissolve the obstacles to achieving a more equal, integrated, and secure blending of work and care.
Kathleen Gerson is Collegiate Professor of Sociology at New York University You can read a brief introduction to her presentation 'Intimate Commitment in the New Economy: How Rising Uncertainties in Jobs and Relationships Are Reshaping Strategies for Work and Care' here
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