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Young adults hope to share chores and child-rearing, but it may hinge on workplace policies
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Most young men and women would like to balance work and family responsibility equitably, according to a study in the American Sociological Review. But doing so may require supportive workplace policies. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Most young men and women would like to balance work and family responsibility equitably, according to a study coming out in the American Sociological Review. But doing so may require employers whose workplace policies support an individual's choices.

Researchers from University of Texas at Austin and University of California-Santa Barbara asked unmarried, childless young adults ages 18 to 32 what their work-life balance with a future partner would look like if they could design it the way they want it. They found most would like to share earning and household/caregiving responsibilities equally with a partner.

That held true for both genders, regardless of how educated they were.

Women were more apt to express desire for what the study called "egalitarian relationships" if they had access to workplace policies such as subsidized child care or paid family leave. While men were as likely to say they hoped for egalitarian relationships, they were less influenced by workplace policies.

"The study helps to show that if we were to change workplace policy environments, we would also be likely to see a change in how people particularly young women express their ideal preferences for balancing work and family life, and I think that has really important policy implications for workplace organizations," said David S. Pedulla, assistant professor of sociology and a faculty research associate at the University of Texas at Austin Population Research Center.

"These findings offer new insights that may be useful in guiding policymakers and organizations that are interested in reducing gender inequality and improving the work and family lives of young men and women," he said.

The researchers wrote in the study that "in recent decades, women have entered the labor force en masse, yet this trend has not been matched with a corresponding increase in men's share of unpaid household work, men's entry into traditionally female-dominated occupations or substantial reforms to government and workplace policies." And while "ideological support" for female employment grew a great deal since the 1970s, that leveled off a decade ago, they wrote.

Other research has looked at work-life balance as women in large numbers have begun to work outside the home for wages, which was not true 50 years ago. In 2013, Pew Research Center noted in a study that "parents spend time very differently than they did 50 years ago," the roles "converging," while both moms and dads stress about how to balance the work to be done in the workplace and in the home.

"Moms are spending more time outside the home and dads are doing more housework," Kim Parker, associate director for the Pew Social and Demographics Trends Project, told the Deseret News. "There are still gender gaps. Moms are still spending more time with the kids than dads, but dads are there three times more than they were 50 years ago."

That research showed 56 percent of working moms and 50 percent of working dads said it was somewhat or very hard to balance their responsibilities. Fathers were as apt as moms to say they wish they could stay home and raise their children, although moms were somewhat less likely to say they'd like to work full time.

The new study's design is called a "survey experiment" and the researchers were careful to "prime gender-neutral policies that both men and women would have universal access to," said Sarah Thbaud, assistant professor of sociology and faculty research associate at the Broom Center for Demography at UCSB.

While some respondents were asked how they would ideally like to structure their work and family life with a future partner or spouse, other respondents were randomly assigned to a "condition" where they were asked to imagine that they had access to supportive work-family policies, such as subsidized child care. The survey-experimental study design provided "the generalizability that you can get with a large sample and also attention to causal direction," said Thbaud.

"The implication is that if we were to change the policy environment, we would see people would be less constrained in the way they were able to organize work and family life," she said. "We'd see more women 'leaning in' and more men taking up greater responsibility for child care, especially among this younger generation.... Policies really do have the power to affect the patterns we see in general in division of labor in the household and also men's and women's engagement in the workplace."

The research did not, however, tease apart the relative impact of each specific policy on how individuals changed their preferences, something Thbaud said she'd like to examine in the future.

Pedulla and Thbaud said giving workers more options would help both those who want more traditional roles in the relationships they forge and those who would choose less tradition.