Hoping For The Best, Ready For The Worst

A few years ago, when the University of Connecticut women's basketball team first captured the NCAA title, a popular bumper sticker declared the Storrs campus a place where the men are men and the women are champions. And with the Lady Huskies still stars, UConn students aren't afraid to break stereotypes. So last week senior Christopher Kyne, 22, was confident about heading to South Carolina after graduation because his girlfriend has a good job at the Medical University of South Carolina. "We're going on her money," he says. He hopes to enter grad school and become a teacher, partly because it's a family-friendly career. In the future, he says, "I'd be 100 percent satisfied if my wife made enough money so I could be a stay-at-home dad."

Openness to flexible roles in marriage and family distinguishes this generation of college students from their parents, say researchers who've studied their progress. The battle over whether mothers should work is moot now; families need the money. Young women are more ready to pick up the slack and the men feel less of a stigma if they stay home. Everyone is desperate to avoid his parents' mistakes. In the early 1980s, these kids' baby-boomer mothers --swarmed into the work force without any of the supports common today--maternity leave, part-time career paths, flexible schedules. The children saw marriages crumble under the strain. They also watched the economy ricochet. In the current downturn, many of their fortysomething fathers are out of work with little chance of getting rehired. In this context, rigid roles seem quaint, says Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University who is writing a book called "The Children of the Gender Revolution." "If the economic opportunities are there for the woman, fine. As long as they are there for somebody."

They're hopeful but pragmatic, and understand that the real world can crush ideals. Many of these young women hope for a close family life, but with nearly half of all marriages eventually ending in divorce, they're prepared to be breadwinners. "That's a big thing for our age group," says Lucy Swetland, a 21-year-old junior who watched friends' mothers struggle. Even though her parents are married, she's learned that "you can't depend on someone else to carry you through." Women still want to have it all--although maybe not all at the same time. Jennifer Carosella, a 21-year-old senior, is going to law school so she can earn a six-figure income. But at some point, she also wants to be home with her children--as her own mother was.

How comfortably the men adapt depends largely on the examples their fathers set, says University of Chicago sociologist Barbara Schneider, coauthor of "The Ambitious Generation." UConn junior Alfred Guante, 21, whose parents are divorced, was the main male figure in his household for much of his childhood--and being responsible for his family is important to him: "I think it's a man's role to get a job." But unlike many men in earlier generations, he would have no objections to his wife's working as well. Drama student Jeremy Andrews was inspired by his father, an engineer who trained as a nurse. It was a backup when his company left town so he could avoid dislocating his family. His father found another engineering job, but rarely missed his four sons' games, while his mother, a nurse, worked long hours. That gives Andrews the confidence to try acting--even if it doesn't bring in a steady paycheck.

Rather than bemoan a legacy of social upheaval, this generation seems determined to embrace possibilities. "You're not stuck in what you do," says UConn sophomore Caitlin Fitzpatrick. "People have four or five careers. There are so many opportunities." Maybe this time, the balancing act will work.