The Contrary (and Lofty) Expectations of Generation Y

April 20, 2012

Note to Readers,

I’m going to be very busy with a consulting gig over the next week or two, so I’ll be taking a short break from HUS. I may pop in but this will be my last post until after May 1. Enjoy the beautiful spring weather, see you then.



Pew Research released new data yesterday, highlighting the finding that more Gen Y women than men now prioritize career success. Described as a gender reversal, it confirms what we might expect at a time when 60% of college students are women and females in their 20s make 8% more than males nationwide. In cities like New York, Atlanta. Chicago, Dallas and Boston, 20-something women make 20% more than men do.  

Today, more young women (18-34) than men define career success as “very important” than they did 15 years ago. Note that the percentage of men saying so has stayed the same – the change is among women.

There has been an even sharper increase in the number of women aged 35-64 (Gen X and Boomers) who feel this way.

Again, the male numbers are mostly unchanged:

Obviously, with male objectives holding steady, and more women defining career success as essential, not everyone can achieve their goals if the number of jobs does not rise accordingly. Obviously, that has not happened and is unlikely to do so. Female gains have occurred largely at male expense. Trends in college enrollment suggest that women are likely to continue filling professional positions in increasing proportion, with the exception of STEM jobs, which do play a vital role in the economy, mitigating the effect somewhat.

Marriage and parenthood remain highly valued in the population, both by men and women, whose values align closely:

However, the story is considerably different for Gen Y:

Surprisingly, women care more about marriage today, even as they care more about careers. If they feel wary of feminism’s promise that women can have it all, it’s not reflected here. 

The decrease in the number of young men valuing marriage is more expected, in keeping with decreased educational and financial opportunities. It may also reflect the 80/20 split in the contemporary SMP – the minority of men enjoying sexual success have fewer incentives to choose commitment, and men with less access to female partners undoubtedly perceive a lack of opportunity for marriage. Men may also feel that inequities in American family law make marriage too risky.

Despite feelings about marriage, there’s been a sharp increase in both sexes prioritizing parenthood:

This suggests a continued move toward cohabitation, and perhaps increased willingness to single parent as well, especially for women, whose numbers rose more dramatically. It may also partly reflect the reality of the many young women who already find themselves single mothers.

Will women focus on career to the exclusion of marriage? Will they step onto the mommy track when they have children? How will this play out at a time when 40% of the nation’s primary breadwinners are female? 

Will men refuse to marry? Will women embrace cohabitation in lieu of marriage? Will education and socioeconomic status continue to play a role in segmenting these trends among the population? 

How will the desire for children affect the birthrate? Will men’s increased desire for children be a point of leverage for women? 

I’m not qualified to predict how this will all play out, but I suspect even the experts will be throwing darts. There are a lot of contradictions built into the data. It will be interesting to see what people choose when push comes to shove, because we’ve already seen that no one gets to have it all.