Reviewed by Ronnie Steinberg
Some half a century after Father Knows Best and I Love Lucy modeled traditional father-headed family life for the nation, Kathleen Gerson's Unfinished Revolution analyzes how today's ordinary women and men, ages 18 to 32, think about the kinds of families they came from and the kinds they expect to launch.
Gerson chose her sample carefully. She wanted a close look at young people who came of age during an era of increasing labor-force participation by women, rising divorce rates and unstable employment. She called her diverse sample "children of the gender revolution" and included those raised in three types of families: single head-of-household, traditional and dual-earner. It turned out that original family composition didn't predict a whole lot. Almost half of those brought up in single head-of-household families thought their parents' divorce was for the best; 40 percent of those raised in traditional homes also thought it would have been better if their parents had divorced. While fully 80 percent of those brought up in dual-career families believed this the best option, a slight majority of those from traditional families thought it would have been better if their mothers had worked. Most agreed that the concept of family was fluid and that the most successful families had been the most flexible in adapting to changing circumstances.
What, then, do these young people seek for themselves? Almost all wanted a marriage-like relationship; nine of 10 wanted children. As they described their ideal relationship, Gerson found they held a higher set of standards than their parents did. The majority -- female and male -- sought a committed and egalitarian relationship that allowed for flexible roles and room for personal autonomy. These attitudes were held by 75 percent of those from dual-earner families, 90 percent from single head-of-household families and 66 percent from traditional families.
Nonetheless, most doubted their ability to achieve their ideals. As Gerson puts it, personal ideals are "colliding with resistant institutions." These young people feared the time demands of a successful career, the unreliability of partners, the lack of reliable child care. As a result, they have developed "fallback strategies." And here is where women and men diverged: The majority of women see work as essential to survival while looking at marriage as "optional or reversible." Pushed to the wall, they prefer self-reliance over economic dependence, though a third said they were willing to abandon self-reliance as a way to maintain their committed relationship -- but only for a period of time. In contrast, three of four men in her sample considered breadwinning the "most reasonable alternative."
Gerson found that her subjects dismissed collective solutions, even those who recognized that the work-family trade-off comes from outdated institutional arrangements. Regardless of their politics, this generation prefers private solutions; they naively look for the few jobs with significant autonomy, seek quick success or trade money for time. Happily, they reject the traditional family as the only "good" family, but the future of work-family arrangements remains unclear -- and the gender revolution unfinished.
Ronnie Steinberg is a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University.
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