Will feminists be forced into “happy homemaker” role in a changing economy?

More competition among millennials for fewer good jobs may ultimately create a backlash against employed women.

I recently read a remarkable book. It’s Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. On the cover the author identifies himself as “Malcolm Harris (b. 1988).”

This is certainly not the only book about the challenges facing millennials, but it is perhaps the best because of how its unifying theme pulls together diverse threads that have been discussed individually elsewhere.

This theme is that children and young adults are now “human capital,” meaning that they are raised to be the economy’s “engines of productivity.” They are trained almost from birth to be better employees. As a result, the burden and expense of developing the labor force falls on children themselves and their parents without placing demands on employers.

In the workplace this translates into almost no on-the-job training. Quite the opposite. Students and their parents take on years or even decades of college debt. Unpaid multiple internships are undertaken, with some interns living below the poverty level and worse yet, without promises of ensuing paid employment.

However, excessive burdens on youth start long before college. For instance:

  • Preschool and kindergarten now pressure young children to master reading and writing at younger ages so they will be more labor ready. Schools are cutting back on recess and fun activities such as gym, art, and music classes.
  • More pressure on high school students to excel academically, take on hours of volunteer work, and cut back on any in-person socializing without a build-your-resume aspect. This results in youth who test as less happy than previous generations.
  • Less acceptance of children with ADHD and other mental conditions that compromise classroom efficiency. The “solution” has been more meds.
  • Decline in the number of middle-of-the-ladder jobs, with a very small number of lucrative top management jobs and many more “bad jobs.”
  • Intense competition in the face of fewer opportunities. This creates a feeling of isolation among young people since they are in competition with everyone, including their best friends.


Now for the feminism angle

Obviously, these trends have many implications for society. However, I am pulling out only one of Harris’s conclusions for discussion here. On page 207 he begins a single page predicting “misogynist backlash.”

Attitudinal research over the past several decades shows that a growing percentage of Americans are progressives on issues around women working outside the home. This includes Millennials.

While Millennials currently are more strongly in favor of economic opportunity for women, this may change as job polarization, decreasing the share of mid-ranking jobs, intensifies and there are fewer good seats at the economic table. Harris projects a backlash against employed women in favor of stay-at-home mothers and homemakers.

So while Harris writes only a single page on this issue, I’ve tried to flesh out some of the implications and in the process have really depressed myself.

It brought to mind the late 1940s and early 1950s when American men came home from World War II and replaced women in professional and manufacturing jobs. After all, men had families to support and married women had men who would support them financially. Women were either laid off post-war or voluntarily resigned in favor of marriage and home as the Happy Homemaker. (That’s the story of Betty Friedan, who reinvigorated feminism with The Feminine Mystique, 1963.)

Bad then, worse now

This in itself is horrible for today’s woman, but in the coming years it may be even worse than it was 70 years ago.

Post World War II, men could support singlehandedly a household with wife and children. The house may have been sort of small, with only a single bathroom and only one car in the driveway, but it was possible. Even laborers were often unionized.

In coming years, with an international labor force and fewer good jobs, a single income won’t be enough and women will have fewer opportunities to contribute to household finances.

Back in the day, divorce was rare. More people stuck with an unfulfilling marriage. When there was a divorce, alimony was common.

As things stand now, alimony is frowned upon as women feel they should pull their own weight. Women and children could be really screwed financially, especially if changes in divorce terms don’t keep pace with changes in the labor force.

Looking ahead

I hope this doesn’t happen but it is a possibility. The future isn’t looking too good from here.


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Filed under: feminism

Tags: millennials

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