What Makes Millennials Happy?

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.”)