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the boomer shift

Stan and Karen Kochany of Stratford, Ont. have been married for over 40 years: Karen did more cooking when their kids were young, but now Stan does more in the kitchen.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The Globe and Mail's week-long series on baby boomers and how their spending, investing, health and lifestyle decisions could affect Canada's economy in the next fifteen years. Is Canada ready for the boom?

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Today, the "Hi honey, I'm home!" dinnertime scene that many baby boomers grew up with might be met with a blank stare, or worse. We've come a long way since the 1950s, when high-school home-economics textbooks offered such pearls of domestic wisdom as "have dinner ready" because "most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal is part of the warm welcome needed."

"I definitely grew up in a Leave It to Beaver household," recalls Mary Lynn, a 67-year-old retiree who, along with her 68-year-old husband Bill, just downsized to a townhouse in downtown Newmarket, Ont. (They asked that The Globe not use their surname.) Her mother, she remembers, was the home's primary housekeeper, child-rearer and chef. But the same gendered household roles would not be true of her marriage, nor of the majority of partnerships of her Gen X and millennial successors. A fairer division of labour in the kitchen has become increasingly standard, and it was the baby boomers who led that charge.

Don't get too excited yet: Women still carry the brunt of the domestic workload. The OECD's 2014 Economic Survey of Canada found that Canadian women spend an average of 254 minutes each day on household tasks like cooking, cleaning and caring, as compared with the 160 minutes spent by men on the same. Lots of that time is spent over or near a hot stove: According to a recent study by the global polling firm GfK, Canadians average 6.4 hours a week on kitchen work – a figure that climbs to 7.6 hours among Canadians over 60.

But with each generation, the gap between what the sexes do shrinks, even if slightly: In 1986, 48 per cent of late-baby-boomer men and 78 per cent of women reported doing some housework on a daily basis, but by 2010, 65 per cent of millennial men of the same age-range and 76 per cent of women reported doing daily housework. Baby-boomer women take credit for starting the shift. "We all came of age in the sixties and seventies when feminism was on the rise, and that certainly influenced what we would come to expect from our marriages," Mary Lynn says.

In their nearly five decades of marriage, throughout child-rearing and into retirement, cooking has always been a shared task in Bill and Mary Lynn's household. Both husband and wife enjoy preparing meals – Mary Lynn tends to stick to recipes, while Bill likes to experiment. Mary Lynn has no trouble admitting that her husband might even be better at it than she is.

"We have some couple-friends where it's pretty traditional and the guy hasn't got a clue in the kitchen, or around the inside of the house, but I can think of other couples who do things more the way we do things," she says. "Maybe it's the role modelling you see at home, but not everyone is so keen to adopt [traditional] gender roles."

"Absolutely the baby boomers – some, not all of them – were the first generation to even think about a more equitable division of household labour," says Liesl Gambold, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Gambold cites the women's rights movement and mass entry of women into the workforce as two primary drivers behind the shift. But she also suggests that at least some of the impetus for sharing cooking duties can be chalked up to the boomer generation's sense of rebellion. "Boomers eschewed almost everything of their parents' generation," she says. "The boomers are, after all, the generation of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."

Stan and Karen Kochany of Stratford, Ont., have been sharing kitchen duties since they first got together more than 40 years ago. When they were raising their three children through the 1980s and '90s, Karen did the majority of evening meal preparation, but in recent years that balance has shifted. Stan, a project-management professional, began working primarily from home and now takes on the bulk of the cooking during the workweek.

"The thing is, I don't love cooking," Karen, 59, says. "And he really likes it. I think he relaxes when he gets in the kitchen."

While Karen is more inclined to prepare side dishes or vegetable-based entrées, Stan is largely responsible for meat mains ("Oh my God, he is meat king," says Karen) and more labour-intensive preparations. But cooking is something they tend to do together, especially on weekends or when the couple is expecting company.

"Half of our friends have [kitchen] roles more like Stan and me, and the other half is more the wife," Karen observes. "I think it's pretty typical for our generation."

Time spent on meal preparation is a valuable relationship investment. Multiple studies over the years have reaffirmed the not-so-shocking hypothesis that shared household work is a pillar of a happy marriage. But it isn't just a sense of domestic fairness that's stoked by equal cooks in the kitchen: A new study from the University of Alberta found that couples who felt their household tasks were being fairly distributed also reported better sexual satisfaction. As the forthcoming article "Skip the Dishes? Not So Fast. Sex and Housework Revisited" in the Journal of Family Psychology will attest, passion grows from an experience of mutual respect.

As the generation that bridged picket-fence sensibilities with the social aftershocks of the sexual revolution, the baby boomers were charged with the first occasionally messy negotiations in household responsibility. Now, as their children enter life partnerships of their own, the number of men donning "Kiss the Cook" aprons is surely set to rise even further.

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