In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama came out in full support of paid family leave, an option that's currently unavailable for most families in the U.S.
"It's time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women's issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us," he said.
New research suggests that, if these policies become a reality, the relationships of young Americans might look very different. A study out of the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that, when given the option, the majority of men and women between 18 and 32 preferred egalitarian relationships, where the man and woman split financial and domestic responsibilities. This type of relationship was especially preferable once hypothetical policies supporting a dual-earner, dual-caregiver lifestyle were offered to participants.
"It’s quite challenging to actually achieve an egalitarian relationship," Sarah Thébaud, Assistant Professor at UCSB and co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post. "For many people, it's not really an option on the table because of the high cost of childcare and inflexible workplace practices."
A lack of childcare and flexible work schedules can mean that one parent has to interrupt his or her career to care for children, making it challenging to achieve an egalitarian relationship. For many couples, women end up picking up the slack at home at a cost to their careers.
For their study, Thébaud and her co-author, David S. Pedulla, surveyed 329 unmarried, childless men and women between the ages of 18 and 32. They asked all respondents how they would like to share work and household responsibilities with a spouse or partner, but presented some with more outside support options to ease the burden than others. They asked them how they'd like to share work and household responsibilities and to choose one of three provided answers:
- I would like to maintain my personal independence and focus on my career, even if that means forgoing marriage or a lifelong partner.
- I would like to have a lifelong marriage or committed relationship in which I would be primarily responsible for financially supporting the family, whereas my spouse or partner would be primarily responsible for managing the household (which may include housework and/or childcare).
- I would like to have a lifelong marriage or committed relationship in which I would be primarily responsible for managing the household (which may include housework and/or childcare), whereas my spouse or partner would be primarily responsible for financially supporting the family.
The researchers asked the first group how they'd prefer to share responsibilities, but they made no mention of supportive workplace policies.
A second group was given the same prompt, one that excluded any mention of policies to support work and family life, but was also given another answer choice that read: "I would like to have a lifelong marriage or committed relationship where financially supporting the family and managing the household (which may include housework and/or childcare) are equally shared between my spouse or partner and I."
Finally, a third group was given all four answer options of relationship dynamics, but these respondents were given a prompt that explicitly stated that they would be living in a society where there were supportive policies in place, like paid family leave, subsidized childcare and work-from-home options.
Essentially, the researchers were hoping to find out how people would choose to structure their relationships if they lived in our current society versus one that actively lessened the burden of work/life balance. Would men and women choose to lead their lives differently if employers helped bridge the gap between career and family? The short answer is absolutely.
In the first condition, where no supportive policies or egalitarian relationships were available, 64 percent of women opted for a more traditional structure, where they would take on the brunt of the housework while their male partner worked. In the second group, for which an egalitarian relationship was an option, that number dropped 27 percent, with 62 percent preferring a more equal division of work and home labor. When supportive policies were added to the mix in the third group, only 5 percent of women chose a traditional role -- and 94 percent chose to have an egalitarian relationship.
These findings may add another layer to the already-convoluted "having it all" debate. Previous studies have shown that ambitious women define success more holistically, creating a composite of both work and family achievements. But this study shows that, in our current climate, it's easy to wonder how much of a choice "opt-out" moms really have.
"Most women who are high achievers also have partners who are high achievers who are working long hours," Thébaud said. "If both of those people have access to these policies, then everyone gets a fair shot at those promotions that are so critical."
The majority of men in the study also preferred a less traditional division of labor, with 63 percent opting for egalitarian relationships when they were an option in the second condition and nearly 75 percent choosing it when they knew they'd be backed up by supportive policies in the third.
It seems that, with a little support, most people surveyed were able to move away from society's default mode towards what they really wanted: the option to share work and family responsibilities equally with their partner. For what it's worth, the only time a majority of men or women chose to occupy traditional gender roles were when egalitarian relationships weren't an option.
Should Obama make good on his promise to pursue paid family leave, the 39 percent of private-sector workers in America who don't currently have access to paid leave will have the opportunity to rethink their priorities. This study suggests that young Americans today are likely to continue to pursue support systems, like paid family leave, subsidized childcare and work-from-home options -- these aren't just women's issues anymore.
"This generation is more egalitarian than any other generation we've had before," Thébaud said. "They should fight for the kinds of policies that are going to let them live up to that ideal that they hold."