IF THE LAST generation of women obsessed about cracking the glass ceiling, a new crop of college undergrads seems less interested in the professional stratosphere than in a soft -- a cushy -- landing.
The New York Times recently got its hands on a Yale University questionnaire in which 60% of the 138 female respondents said that they intend to stop working when they have children, and then to work part time, if at all, once the kids are in school. A reporter talked to students at other elite East Coast colleges who echoed the same back-to-the-future sentiment: Work is but a way-station; a woman's place is in the home.
The young women think they're doing the right thing for their eventual children, having watched too many of their moms' generation try to juggle career and family. And at least one male student at Harvard finds the whole lord-and-master idea "sexy." This, from excellent students who have clambered over the backs of other, merely good students to gain entry into schools that traditionally have incubated tomorrow's leaders.
These future moms betray a startling combination of naivete and privilege. To plot this kind of future, a woman has to have access to a pool of wealthy potential husbands, she has to stay married at a time when half of marriages end in divorce, and she has to ignore the history of the women's movement. (Homework assignment: research Betty Friedan's motivation for writing "The Feminine Mystique").
It's also helpful if she ignores the following: The number of dual-working couples is on the rise. Ditto, the number of women in the work force.
The one number that's dwindling? Households supported by one adult, who in the current fantasy would be the extremely well-paid husband. Fewer than 25% of American households survive on one paycheck, and in a few years that number will decline to fewer than 20%.
If the undergrads still believe they can beat the odds, they must've slept through statistics. Or worse, they think they're above the fray. They seem to have learned one lesson -- I'm in it for me -- far too well, confusing personal comfort with social progress.
Laura Wexler, a Yale professor of American studies and women's and gender studies, confessed surprise that women still consider this a "private" issue, and she wondered how 25 years could pass without more social change to make women's decisions easier.
Her colleague, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, expressed concern that so few students were able to think "outside the box," gender-wise.
And a Tiffany's box it is; every step of this retro scenario requires capital, from law school -- a popular goal for most of these aspiring if temporary professionals -- to the husband with bucks. The choice of law is a little chilling in its practicality: You can't take 10 years off from biomedical research or orthopedic surgery and fit right in when you choose to go back to work, but the law is more of an evergreen profession.
As a working mother, I have nothing but empathy for the desire to avoid what author Arlie Hochschild rightly calls the second shift -- in her book of that name -- the double workday that most employed mothers put in. I have nothing but anger at the proposed solution. Do we grab a private solution or address the public issue? Is a hedge-fund husband the answer, or should women smart enough to be tomorrow's leaders seek new ideas that pay more than lip-service to family values?
There are only two possibilities here: If these young women are right that staying home means better children, we have to come up with a way to give more parents -- moms and dads -- the chance to be at home more frequently during their kids' formative years. The women's movement is about choice and responsibility, not just choice, and the math here should be simple for girls who get over 700 on their math SAT: Opportunity for one coed does not equal choice for all.
Or they're wrong, and in their smugness have managed to insult every mother in this country who needs to work. Surely some of the mothers of these 138 young women had jobs. Are their daughters worse off than those whose mothers stayed at home? If all of the undergrads agree that some among them turned out better than others -- and that's where their stay-home logic inevitably leads them -- then they should step forward.
KAREN STABINER is the author of "My Girl: Adventures with a Teen in Training" (Little Brown, 2005).