What Makes Millennials Happy

What Makes Millennials Happy?

The tensions don’t reliably play out the way you might guess

Nov 21, 2010

– Mark Dolliver


As if life weren’t complicated enough in an era of technological and economic flux, today’s 18-25-year-olds must also cope with unpredictable shifts in gender roles. It’s one aspect of the culture wars in which no one is granted the safety of non-combatant status. However, a newly released survey of millennial-generation adults by Euro RSCG makes it clear that the tensions don’t reliably play out the way you might guess. And the attitudes of young-adult women differ significantly from those in evidence a couple decades ago amid a more us-against-them phase of feminism.

The survey finds female respondents (and many of their male counterparts) taking it as a non-negotiable given that women’s role as the “second sex” is a thing of the past. But young women’s insistence on equality is not the same thing as an aversion to different roles for the sexes. “What they seek, to varying degrees, is a return to gender distinctions,” says the report. “They want to celebrate the sexes’ differences and enjoy the yin and yang that makes both parties stronger.”

Women who wish for a persistence (or revival) of such distinctions ought to be pleased by many findings of the survey, which found plenty of differences in the attitudes of American millennial women and men. (Polling for the report was also conducted among 18-25-year-olds in several other countries, but we focus here solely on the findings among U.S. respondents.) For one, the concept of “freedom” exerts a more powerful lure for men than for women — which, for better or worse, dovetails with the fact that “love” has less appeal for men. When given a menu of choices and asked to pick the one that “best describes happiness to you,” an outright majority of women picked “love” (62 percent), while a mere plurality of men did so (42 percent). Conversely, men were more likely than women (22 percent vs. 13 percent) to choose “freedom” as the foremost component of happiness.

The freedom to get and spend is what some of the men — and markedly fewer of the women — have in mind. On the what-best-describes-happiness question, men were much more likely than women to pick “money” (12 percent vs. 2 percent). And that’s reflected in the responses when men and women were asked to pick (again, from a short menu of choices) the phrase that best describes what “freedom” means to them. The men were twice as likely as women (16 percent vs. 8 percent) to choose “buying what I want.” Likewise, when asked to cite their “ambition in life,” men were twice as likely as women (23 percent vs. 11 percent) to choose “being rich.” Men were correspondingly less likely than women (17 percent vs. 26 percent) to pick “living with someone I’ve chosen” as their life’s ambition.

Then again, one shouldn’t overstate the gender difference here. In saying what freedom means to them, “going where I want” was the first choice of women (48 percent) and men (39 percent) alike; “saying what I want” was the runner-up for both sexes (26 percent of women, 30 percent of men). And on the what-describes-happiness question, “having children” was an also-ran for women (5 percent chose it) as well as men (2 percent).

Anyway, if millennial women are less likely than men to yearn for riches, it’s hardly as though they’re naive about the importance of money as a reward for one’s hard work. When respondents were asked to pick the phrase that best describes what work means to them, women were a bit more apt than men to choose “earning money” (57 percent vs. 50 percent) and a bit less likely to choose “being useful to society” (15 percent vs. 19 percent). And they aren’t thinking of their salaries as pin money to supplement the serious earnings of a male partner. Sixty percent of women disagreed (including 40 percent disagreeing “strongly”) with the statement, “A man should earn more than his female partner.” (Men were much less inclined to take umbrage at this notion, with 34 percent disagreeing, including 18 percent disagreeing “strongly.”)

Relatively few respondents of either sex said “personal fulfillment” is what work is about (14 percent of women, 11 percent of men). As for “what they look at first when choosing a job,” “salary” was cited by nearly equal numbers of men (32 percent) and women (30 percent). There was a slightly larger disparity in the numbers who said “ability to balance work and life” is what they’d look at first when choosing a job (38 percent of women, 30 percent of men).

Actually, the issue of work/life balance points to a very different sort of gap involving millennial women. Amid all the attention given to gender gaps of one sort or another, too little heed may be paid to a generation gap that has arisen between today’s young women and the feminists of their mothers’ age cohort. Work/life balance is a focal point of this. As the Euro RSCG report states, “What we are seeing among many millennial females is that their vision of ‘ideal womanhood’ is somewhat more traditional than that of their feminist mothers. They, too, want it all, but their definition of ‘all’ highlights family and personal time at least as much as career.”

This focus on family and personal life lends added importance to the question of what today’s young women expect from today’s young men. And here again, the polling detects some significant disparities in female and male attitudes. For instance, asked whether they agree that “A woman should be feminine,” female respondents were somewhat equivocal. While 12 percent agreed “strongly” and 31 percent “somewhat,” 10 percent disagreed “strongly” and 15 percent “somewhat.” The rest said they “neither agree nor disagree.” Among male respondents, 21 percent agreed “strongly” and 35 percent “somewhat,” while just 4 percent disagreed “strongly” and 11 percent “somewhat.”

The pattern of response was similar, albeit with a less pronounced gender gap, when respondents were asked whether they agree that “A man should be masculine.” Fifty-nine percent of men agreed (21 percent “strongly”), while 12 percent disagreed (5 percent “strongly”). Forty-nine percent of female respondents agreed (16 percent “strongly”), while 22 percent disagreed (8 percent “strongly”).

Things got a bit more muddy when respondents were asked whether they agree that “Men should be the ones to lead and initiate in romance.” Women were more apt than men to agree at least somewhat (44 percent vs. 33 percent). But there was no significant difference in the incidence of disagreement with the statement. Instead, a large plurality of men (39 percent, vs. 27 percent of women) put themselves in the “neither agree nor disagree” category, suggesting much ambivalence and/or confusion about their role in this aspect of modern life.

Despite the transformation that has taken place in the status of women in the past few decades, the survey’s millennial women were less apt than their male counterparts to feel alienated from the values of earlier times. Sixty-six percent of female respondents disagreed (25 percent “strongly”) with the statement, “I don’t have any common values with the previous generations.” A mere 11 percent agreed (3 percent “strongly”). While more inclined to disagree than agree with the statement, men were less anti than women: 49 percent disagreed (20 percent “strongly”) and 23 percent agreed (6 percent “strongly”).

You might think the stress of living in a time of unpredictable change — with respect to gender roles and many other things — would yield an unhappy generation. Happily, the survey’s results indicate nothing so extreme. Thirty percent of the millennial women agreed “strongly” and another 44 percent “somewhat” that “I consider myself happy.” Few disagreed (3 percent strongly, 6 percent “somewhat”). And there was little gender disparity on this most basic of questions. Among the men, 27 percent agreed “strongly” and 47 percent “somewhat” that they consider themselves happy; 4 percent disagreed “strongly” and 6 percent “somewhat.” If this doesn’t quite amount to generational bliss, it at least characterizes the millennials as a cohort that’s largely coping with the wear and tear of coming of age in such an era.


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