Millennial men want parental equality - will anyone let them have it?

I am not sure when I get to say I am a man, even though I am 23. The perpetual adolescence I am living through has made me suspicious. It's not that I want to become a Man with a capital M - a bare-chested, sexually aggressive cliche - but I do want to be a dad. I want a good career, a loving relationship and a family to whom I am both a homemaker and provider.

But is that a realistic aspiration? Can millennial men really have it all?

Take a glance at the British Social Attitudes survey, and it might seem as if the British public still supports the traditional family model. But look more closely, and it's clear that change is coming. When asked if they agree with the statement: "A man's job is to earn money; a woman's job is to look after the home and family", only 4 per cent of men and women aged 18 to 25 said yes. There was little difference between the genders.

Attitudes towards parental leave reveal a similar change. Asked if paid leave should be divided between the mother and father, 44 per cent of those aged 18 to 25, and 26 per cent of those aged 26 to 35, agreed it should, compared with just 13 per cent among those over 65. Yes, baby boomers, your kids turned out all right. But we can't start celebrating just yet.

Attitudes among young men towards gender, career and family norms are becoming increasingly egalitarian, but economic pressures, social stigma and restrictive family policies are still obstacles to their ideal family life.

Marriages are more successful and women earn more in countries with a progressive parental leave system. But as it stands, millennial men in Britain cannot have it, despite the fledgling desire for change. The support from government and employers is just not there.

The distance between the evolving principles of millennial men and current practice is well described by the statistics. In Britain, fewer than 10 per cent of new fathers take more than their two weeks' paternity leave entitlement, and a quarter of new fathers take no leave at all.

Stuck between a traditional past and an egalitarian future, the millennial man is an amalgam of contradictory values, happy to work alongside women and live in a dual-earner household, but hesitant to do his share of the housework or keep his legs closed on the London Underground.

According to the same survey, men self-reported spending 8.3 hours a week on housework, whereas their partners reported them spending an average of 5.7 hours. We are not fooling anyone.

But when it comes to fatherhood, the issue is rather simple. Millennial men, especially the younger ones, increasingly aspire to be care-giving fathers, as well as having a successful career.

Millennials admire men whose masculinity is defined by being hands-on dads, from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and rapper Jay Z to United States President Barack Obama and Prince William. Football legend David Beckham is not often described as a social revolutionary, but a generation of young men, whether they define themselves as feminists or not, want to start a family like the Beckhams. "Goldenballs" has made what was previously thought mundane and feminine exciting, sexy and masculine.

That is not to say that a paternal archetype exists: There are clearly lots of ways to be a good father. For every Beckham family selfie, there's an insurance administrator working a six-day week to provide for his family. For every gushing Elton John interview, there are countless infantrymen who don't see their children for months on end, restricted to tantalising Skype conversations.

Nonetheless, the intention is there, and it is time to implement family policies that support this change in attitudes before the majority of millennial men start families.

But how? The men mentioned so far are fantastically wealthy - free to decide how much leave they take and how often they see their children. The typical millennial man in Britain does not enjoy these privileges. The average age of a new father in Britain is around 33, and rising economic pressures and inflexible employers are influencing men to wait longer and longer, with some worried that they won't be able to afford a family at all. And with rocketing property prices, unstable employment and mountains of student debt, who can really blame them?

The new shared parental leave system that was introduced by the coalition government in April last year is a start, allowing couples to share 52 weeks' statutory leave between them. But at a weekly rate of £139.58 (about S$270), many parents cannot afford to take the time off they would like, and an employer's parental leave policy is of more relevance to the division of labour in the family.

Last summer, Virgin announced that men and women who had worked for the company for at least four years would be entitled to a year's leave on full pay, with founder Richard Branson stating: "As a father and now a grandad to three wonderful grandchildren, I know how magical the first year of a child's life is, but also how much work it takes."

But Virgin is just a glimmer of hope in a country that only three years ago was described as the "scrooge of Europe" when it comes to parental leave.

There is still a cultural expectation that women will take prolonged periods off after birth, with men returning to work after a chaotic two weeks. In an Opinion Matters survey published in 2013, 70 per cent of men working part-time to spend more time with their children said they felt there was a social stigma attached to their decision, and worried it would damage their career prospects - with good reason.

According to a study in the US, men can expect to earn 15 per cent less over the course of their career if they reduce their hours for family reasons, compared with an 11 per cent drop for other reasons.

The British government and employers must do more to enable men to embrace fatherhood on their own terms, free of social stigma and workplace pressures. What use is a flexible parental leave scheme if it is ultimately unaffordable? Do we really want to keep preventing men from having proper home lives? Men who take paternity leave on average spend more time with their children throughout their childhood, producing happier and healthy kids.

Marriages are more successful and women earn more in countries with a progressive parental leave system. But as it stands, millennial men cannot have it, despite the fledgling desire for change. The support from government and employers is just not there.

It is time to raise statutory pay for parental leave, force business to provide at least a month off at full pay and give families the financial freedom to make their own choices. Sooner or later, the "Net- flix and chill" generation is going to start producing fruit, and we must act now to allow them to realise their potential as parents.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'Millennial men want parental equality - will anyone let them have it?'. Print Edition | Subscribe