Gail Rosenblum
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News that a growing number of millennials are pining for a return to traditional gender roles had many of us scratching our heads this week.

This generation — the only group to decisively favor Hillary Clinton in the presidential election?

These young progressives — who expect paternity leave and work-life blending in general?

This demographic — who, in large measure, know only working parents plural?

Turns out a little skepticism is merited. While the findings about millennials, roughly ages 18 to 35, have important implications, the takeaway is that nostalgia for “Leave It to Beaver” is unlikely to portend a return to the past.

“We’re chasing a moving target,” said Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Austin, Texas-based Council on Contemporary Families.

“People make huge generalizations about millennials,” said Coontz, who has tracked family trends for nearly four decades, “but it’s not at all clear that beliefs they may report today will stay with them.”

These beliefs, which grabbed headlines, suggested that millennials, particularly the youngest among them, favor relationships resembling more the lifestyle of their grandparents — men at work, women in the kitchen — than that of their parents.

Sociologists Joanna Pepin of the University of Maryland and David Cotter of Union College compared 40 years of surveys of high school seniors and their opinions about gender equality.

Among their findings: Fewer youths express support for gender equality than did their Gen X counterparts in the mid-1990s. In 1994, for example, 42 percent of high school seniors agreed that the best family was one where the man was the outside achiever and the woman took care of the home. In 2014, 58 percent said this was true.

Another survey found a similar rise in traditionalism among 18- to 25-year-olds over the same period.

“This was puzzling, given all the other findings about millennials,” Coontz said. Young men, for example, tend to be more open to nontraditional paths today, such as nursing and teaching. Young women will leave jobs that don’t advance them in due time. Both genders are more likely than older groups to favor mandated paid leave for parents and overwhelmingly support equal opportunities for women in the workplace.

Coontz offered possible explanations for the uptick, such as a growing number of immigrant groups, with more traditional views of family.

She noted, too, that this group grew up during the recession. Many watched parents struggle to sustain family life under unpredictable job schedules and financial stressors. As youths watched older men increasingly lose jobs in recent years, they may feel threatened by women “becoming really essential as breadwinners.”

And, let’s face it. The American workforce sure doesn’t make it easy for young families, either. The United States is the only country among 41 countries studied, for example, that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents.

Estonia offers more than a year and a half paid leave to new parents. Bulgaria, Hungary, Japan, Lithuania, Austria, Czech Republic, Latvia, Norway and Slovakia all offer more than a year’s worth of paid leave, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Paternity leave is offered in 31 of the 41 countries surveyed. We’re not on that list, either.

“Supportive work-family policies have a huge, huge impact on young people’s assessment of whether it is realistic to aspire to equality in sharing work and child-raising,” Coontz said.

“That’s why paternity leave is so high on my agenda. Guys who take it are more likely to share housework years after they’ve gone back to work. They’re more likely to be involved. There’s less arguing about chores, and their kids are much more likely to see benefits.”

Her hunch is that the recent news is more a reflection of a demographic in tremendous flux, and we’d be unwise to carve in stone any pronouncements about how they will feel in a year, or five.

The majority of 18- to 25-year-olds, Coontz noted, are not yet married, nor are they employed in permanent jobs, unlike their peers 20 to 40 years ago.

She predicts that the number of those supporting traditional roles will shrink as they head toward age 30 and take on adult responsibilities.

“They haven’t yet had a chance to work beside people of the opposite gender or realize the financial rewards of two-earner families,” Coontz said. “Older millennials who are married are actually more likely than couples of the past to share housework and child care equally.”

That leads to greater marital satisfaction, fewer divorces and better sex.

The latter benefit, Coontz said with a laugh, “may change their minds in a hurry.”

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350 • Twitter: @grosenblum