Are Americans becoming more liberal about marriage, parenthood, and working women? A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center suggests we are. The survey showed big gaps between younger and older Americans on several questions: whether working moms make it harder to sustain successful marriages and raise children, whether kids are better off if their mothers stay home, and whether the increasing number of unwed mothers is a big problem.
The superficial interpretation of these findings is that the country will become more relaxed about family structure as the new generation replaces its elders. But on closer inspection, the picture is more complicated. What makes older people more conservative isn’t just age. It’s marital and parental experience. Yes, the population has become more liberal. But many of today’s young people will turn more conservative as they become moms and dads.
The Pew report cites previous polls that indicate changes in public opinion over time. In 1997, 82 percent of Americans said that the increasing number of women working for pay outside the home made it harder to raise kids, and 67 percent said it made successful marriages more difficult. In the new survey, those numbers have fallen, respectively, by eight and 17 percentage points. In 2003, 61 percent of Americans said children were better off if their mothers didn’t work outside the home. Today, that number is down to 51 percent. In 2007, 71 percent of Americans said that the increased prevalence of unwed mothers was a big problem. Now that number has slipped to 64 percent.
At first glance, the age breakdown of the Pew survey suggests these trends will continue. Compared with respondents aged 65 or older, respondents aged 18–29 were far less likely to say that unwed motherhood was a big problem (42 vs. 74 percent), that kids were better off if their mothers stayed home (37 vs. 58 percent), or that working moms made it harder to raise kids (60 vs. 76 percent) or sustain successful marriages (36 vs. 52 percent). It’s natural to infer that as sexists die out, the next cohort to reach middle age will be more egalitarian.
But the trend isn’t that simple. Take the question of whether the increase in working moms has made it harder for marriages to succeed. Among respondents under 30, the percentage who espoused this view was 36. Among respondents aged 30–49, the percentage rose to 54. But in the older age brackets—50 to 64, and 65 and over—there was no further increase. People born in the 1970s didn’t answer the question any differently from people born in the 1940s. The only division was between those who had turned 30 and those who hadn’t.
That raises an alternative possibility. Maybe the difference between under-30s and their elders isn’t the era in which they grew up. Maybe it’s a lack of life experience. As young people pass from their 20s to their 30s, they get married and have kids. They lose their naïvete about self-realization, having it all, the equality of family structures, and the interchangeability of moms and dads. According to this theory, the reason why older people are more likely to believe that unwed motherhood is a big problem, or that kids do better with stay-at-home moms, is that beyond the age of 30, you discover that these things are true.
Pew’s initial report showed little evidence for this theory. But Pew is no ordinary pollster. The folks who work there go out of their way to help reporters use their data. If you ask them to slice the numbers in a different way, within reason, they’ll do it. I asked them to break down the sample based on respondents’ answers to two other questions in the survey. One question was: “Are you currently married, living with a partner, divorced, separated, widowed, or have you never been married?” The other question was: “Do you have any children under age 18?” I wanted to see whether marital or parental experience influenced the respondents’ attitudes about wives and mothers.
The first tables Pew sent back were intriguing but fuzzy. Parental status made some difference, but not a lot, and not consistently. Marital status made a bigger difference, but the patterns weren’t clear. The categories were confusing. People who had no kids under 18 might be nonparents, or they might be empty-nesters. People who weren’t married might never have had a spouse, or they might have lost one. So I asked the researchers at Pew to separate the respondents without minor children into two subcategories: those over 50, who were more likely to be empty-nesters, and those under 50, who were more likely to be childless. I also requested three marital categories: married, never-married, and an “ex-married” group consisting of respondents who were separated, divorced, or widowed.
This time, the tables showed striking differences. On the attitudinal questions, people aged 50 or older who didn’t have minor children weren’t much different from people of any age who did have such children. But people under 50 who didn’t have minor children—the true nonparents—diverged sharply from those who had kids. Compared to parents under 50, nonparents under 50 were less likely to say that working mothers made it harder to raise kids (62 vs. 79 percent), less likely to say that working mothers made it harder for marriages to succeed (38 vs. 56 percent), less likely to say that kids were better off if their mothers stayed home (36 vs. 47 percent), and less likely to call unwed motherhood a big problem (49 vs. 63 percent).
The tables exposed similar gaps based on marital experience. Compared with people who had never been married, those who were married at the time of the survey were more likely to say that working mothers made it harder to raise kids (82 vs. 62 percent), more likely to say that working mothers made it harder for marriages to succeed (56 vs. 37 percent), more likely to say that kids were better off with their mothers at home (56 vs. 30 percent), and more likely to say that unwed motherhood was a big problem (74 vs. 44 percent). In nearly every case, the gap between marrieds and never-marrieds was bigger than the gap between the youngest age group (18–29) and the oldest (65+). If you want to predict what somebody thinks about women and families, marital experience is a better clue than age.
On their face, these numbers imply that marriage and parenthood could mitigate, or perhaps even halt, the liberal trend in public opinion. But that, too, is uncertain. On some questions, the cultural fight is effectively over. In the Pew survey, fewer than 30 percent of young people agree that it’s better for a marriage if a husband earns more than his wife, and the number doesn’t rise with age until you get to senior citizens. That sort of male supremacism seems to have fallen into permanent minority status. (On the other hand, even among young people, there’s a 30-point gap between the percentage who say kids do better with a stay-at-home mom and the percentage who say kids do better with a stay-at-home dad.) Furthermore, it’s highly plausible that many of the attitudinal differences between married and never-married people, and between parents and nonparents, are causes rather than consequences of marriage and parenthood. If you’re socially conservative, you’re more likely to get hitched and have babies.
But to the extent that experience affects our attitudes about women and families, what’s really intriguing in the Pew data is evidence that this factor cuts both ways. If entering marriage makes you more conservative, leaving it seems to make you more liberal.
To illuminate this pattern, you have to compare married respondents to respondents who classified themselves as separated, divorced, or widowed. On three of the four attitudinal questions, these ex-married respondents were significantly more conservative than never-married respondents, but not quite as conservative as married ones. Compared to marrieds, ex-marrieds were less likely to say that working mothers made it harder to raise kids (75 vs. 82 percent), less likely to say that kids were better off with stay-at-home moms (48 vs. 56 percent), and less likely to call unwed motherhood a big problem (65 vs. 74 percent). The only question on which the gap closed was the one about whether working mothers made it harder for marriages to succeed—a question on which a broken marriage obviously makes you more likely to say yes.
Maybe the sort of people who separate or divorce are simply more liberal than those who stay married. Or maybe the experience of living alone again, and perhaps raising a child by yourself, sometimes restores your confidence that working women can raise children without men around. Conservatives might expect the opposite: After your divorce, you’d find that raising a child on your own as a working parent is harder than it was when you had a spouse’s help. Either way, we’re better off if experience, not age, drives public opinion. Debates about marriage, motherhood, and sexual equality are best resolved not by dying but by living: not by the expiration of our elders, but by learning which claims about happiness and family structure—the left’s or the right’s—turn out, in real life, to be true.
Thanks to Wendy Wang and Anna Brown of the Pew Research Center for humoring my many requests to reslice the data. No other polling organization makes this kind of reanalysis possible.