In 1989, when the Pew Research Center’s records began, being a stay-at-home dad was all but unheard of. Just 4% of America’s fathers remained at home with their children—and a quarter of them did so only because they could not find work. The same year, 28% of mothers stayed at home with their kids, almost entirely by choice.
Twenty-seven years on, according to Pew’s most recent data, stay-at-home fathers are no longer such anomalies. Their numbers have almost doubled, from 4% to 7%. Over the same time, the rate of women who stay at home has fluctuated and then evened out—dipping to a low of 23% in 2000 before settling at 27%.
In the immediate wake of the Great Recession, Pew noted, many parents could not find work, including a third of all stay-at-home dads. Yet even now, the rate of stay-at-home fathers has barely changed, falling from 9% to 7% between 2010 and 2016. The numbers, researchers say, reflect a cultural change that speaks to shifting gender roles: A growing share of stay-at-home fathers say they’re there to look after their home or family—rather than to pursue further education—because they’re ill, disabled or retired.
Let’s take a closer look at this crop of US dads. About half are white, around a quarter have college degrees, and more than 60% are married to a spouse who has remained in the workforce. A large majority are not living in poverty. They tend to have small children and 68% are under 45. They’re often millennials, despite the fact that this group is having fewer children more than previous generations.
You might wonder why the rate of stay-at-home fathers isn’t higher. After all, women now make up almost 47% of the American workforce and tend to be more qualified than their male counterparts. In the 1970s, there were far more men on university campuses than women, at about 58% to 42%. Now, the ratio’s almost exactly reversed—yet women are still far more likely to give up work to care for their children.
Here’s one explanation: When men take time out to look after their children after birth, couples usually go on to divide family responsibilities more evenly between parents. The opposite is also true. Still, most American men simply don’t get the opportunity, as paid paternity leave remains relatively unusual. Though a majority of men say they want it for themselves, only four states mandate it, and less than 15% of US employers offer it, in almost exclusively white-collar jobs, fitting the profile of these stay-at-home dads.
Outside of privileged enclaves, and without a legal framework to support them, American gender roles—and what they mean for fatherhood—are likely to remain relatively set.