Some Gen Z women are rejecting the corporate ladder to embrace their stay-at-home-girlfriend or wife status as aspirational

In a TikTok video, Ashley Garcia thumbs through a fat stack of $20 bills from her boyfriend. She shoves it into her purse, saying, “Look how stuffed my bag was,” before filming exactly how she spent that cash—at Zara purchasing outfits for the boyfriend’s upcoming trip, on coffee, shopping at Sephora, and on food at Trader Joe’s that she would later cook for the two of them.

She ends the day walking her dog with her partner and heading to hot yoga alone. “That’s all I did,” she says with an audible smile. The comments are littered with women who, when not asking for recipes or where she got a pair of shoes, fawn over Garcia’s “dream life.” Garcia, a self-proclaimed “stay-at-home girlfriend,” does not disabuse them of the notion.

The term, alongside the similarly tending “stay-at-home wife,” refers to a woman—usually childless, maybe with a dog or two—who devotes her attention to her boyfriend (or husband) and their relationship. A handful of stay-at-home girlfriends or wives—many of whom are white and have a markedly religious bent—have racked up disbelief and attention from thousands of incensed commenters. TikTok videos with the #stayathomewife hashtag have amassed 245 million views; #stayathomegirlfriend boasts nearly 290 million. The typical content is fairly narrow, riffing on the same handful of themes. Most popular are the Get Ready With Me (GRWMs), where the content creator brain-dumps while applying concealer, or Day in My Life (DIMLs) similar to Garcia’s or Kendel Kay. 

Kay, in one popular and well-documented video, walks viewers through her day of domesticity which includes journaling, making coffee and breakfast for her boyfriend, a long skincare routine, making the bed, doing laundry, and going to the gym, with a slow and calm voiceover that seems to mimic the day’s energy. A quick scroll through her TikTok page shows videos ranging from “let’s make dinner” and “what I eat in a day as a hot stay-at-home girlfriend” to “GRWM for a golf day” and “stay-at-home-girlfriend activities.” 

One video with over 7 million views features her packing her boyfriend’s suitcase, with the text “my bf: i’ll pay for all your trips if you pack for me” splashed across it. Another, with 1 million views, reads “I don’t dream of labor. I dream of living a soft, feminine life and being a hot housewife. It’s as simple as that.”

Women choosing to stay home is, of course, hardly novel, although it’s less popular than it was 60 years ago. But rather than waiting for a ring to begin performing domestic duties like ironing ties, roasting whole chickens, or selecting wallpaper swatches, the stay-at-home girlfriends are doting on their significant other in similarly committed fashion. And while many women who are married stay at home for economic reasons, this Gen Z TikTok cohort seems to be rejecting the corporate grind. They’re the purest (and very privileged) distillation and the natural endpoint of (at least one strand of) the current wave of anti-work sentiment young people are loudly espousing. 

‘Riveting in its countercultural suggestion’

Observing a woman whose sole job, in essence, is sitting still and looking pretty, makes viewers curious and shocked the option still exists, Suzy Welch, a management professor at NYU Stern School of Business, tells Fortune. “It’s riveting in its countercultural suggestion that you could return to this time,” she says.

As one cheery young blonde named Jo Sorrell explains, her husband just wants her to stay home, cook and clean for him, and take care of their eventual kids. “Tucker still likes me to get dressed up and look nice, so when he gets home, I look nice, and when I drop off his lunch at his work, I look nice,” she says, ending the video showing off the “nice” flowy plaid button-down dress—after less than a minute, because, as she tells the viewer, she needs to start making dinner. (None of these stay-at-home wives or girlfriends returned Fortune’s request for comment.)

It’s all reminiscent of a stay-at-home lifestyle that peaked in the 1950s, when the U.S. was in “a period of family conformity,” Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland College Park, tells Fortune. Now, we’re in the epoch of family diversity, he says. He likens the TikTokers less to a sociological trend and more to a museum piece, or Colonial Williamsburg-esque reenactment. “The idea that women’s education is for their husbands or children instead of themselves is an old idea. It’s not unique to the U.S. or a particular point in history, but it’s a sad legacy of patriarchy.”

In 1967, nearly half of mothers stayed home. That figure steadily winnowed away as the second-wave feminist women’s movement spurred an explosion throughout the 1970s in college enrollment (when women overtook men) and mass workforce entrance. By 1999, only 23% of mothers stayed at home. It’s ebbed and flowed since then, owing to recessions and labor market fluctuations, but the share of women choosing to stay home with their children has held steady around 25% for decades. 

Many of those 25% have been staying home for economic reasons. Given the exorbitant prices—and barely-there availability—of daycare, forgoing a career to stay home is, for many people, a last resort. And many women who have spent decades keeping a house would probably scoff at the women on TikTok who make the tasks look easy, aesthetically pleasing, or predictable. 

But in TikToks like Sorrell’s and Kays’, women seem to be relishing the freedom of no longer having to pretend they want to succeed at work or rise above their station. Of course, regardless of personal determination and widening opportunities for women, it’s become undeniably harder for women to ascend and arguably rewarding. 

“We’re in a very chaotic, uncertain time, and anxiety is our constant companion,” Welch says. Indeed, inflation, student debt, wide-sweeping layoffs, and sky-high housing prices in a post-pandemic world has made younger generations worried about their jobs and finances . The allure of staying home, avoiding the grind of the thankless corporate ladder, could be about “trying to control the chaos and uncertainty, and shaping your life around controlling what you can.” Namely: Your house and your appearance.

“Creating a life that feels like home is the last refuge, the last safe place, and it feels like a wonderful option to some of these women,” Welch explains. “It feels like, here’s an option where I can create a safe harbor.”

But there’s a privilege in finding that safety, considering that many women romanticizing opting out of paid labor are white. That’s no coincidence. “Traditional notions of femininity and white feminism are really rooted in white supremacy, and so these performances are something where if Black women were to do the same thing, they would be framed as ‘lazy’ or ‘welfare queens,’” Hajar Yazdiha, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Southern California told Insider.

Giving up control to maintain control

For a downtrodden worker lucky enough to be partnered with a high-earning man, leaning into homemaking instead of corporate work could certainly appeal. Rebranding to being a stay-at-home wife or girlfriend could be a reclamation of that desire to make a home instead of grinding in an unfulfilling, thankless career. But it’s hardly as attainable as TikTok would have you believe. 

“Years ago, women figured out that better protection against insecurity is developing skills and a career,” Cohen, the Maryland professor, says. “That’s probably still the safer bet for women in the long run. Maybe a slice of women in the long run can do this bit, but it’s not a good plan or career choice.”

Nothing is ever free, Justin Lee, a Toronto-based divorce lawyer reminded viewers in a TikTok video. “The price you pay as a stay-at-home girlfriend is your autonomy, your independence, [and] your freedom, which all leads to you being vulnerable.” If a stay-at-home girlfriend, after years of doting, finds herself separated from her partner, she’ll be left with no job experience, career, and no “way to live the lifestyle [she] enjoyed with her boyfriend,” Lee said. In most places, she probably also lacks any claim to property or assets if they were never married. 

Even if things do end well, it’s a precarious arrangement, Welch, the NYU professor, adds. “If you have no financial independence, someone else is the boss.” And stay-at-home wives or girlfriends, just like working women, are making tradeoffs. “Maybe it means giving up some identity in the outside world for these women, but it’s worth it to them for serenity at home, [and] freedom from anxiety.”

But despite the aspiration they evoke among their many followers, Cohen thinks it will remain a niche crowd. “They can promote this lifestyle [of women staying at home] but that lifestyle didn’t reproduce itself for one generation. The children raised in those kinds of families in the 1950s did not adopt the lifestyle themselves,” Cohen says. “It has totally failed as a lifestyle in terms of dominating the culture.”

The #stayathomegirlfriends and #stayathomewives seem to be aware of the resistance to their lifestyle, if not because of some flabbergasted comments (“a personal assistant with privileges,” one commenter wrote on one of Kay’s videos). In a seeming attempt to stop more anger before it starts, Sorrell’s current TikTok bio reads “Pls don’t take this too seriously Karen.” 

Viewers shouldn’t fall for the perception that men want women to do their bidding for them in this way, Cohen says. “They want powerful people too; it’s really not the case that this is a fantasy for them,” he explains. “If you look at the actual behavior of rich people today, today’s stereotypical rich family is a two-earner family. They hire help and eat out and don’t do tons of housework themselves.”

You could hardly blame young, TikTok-addled adults for missing that memo. If there’s one thing Gen Z is always trying to say, it’s how hard life is, Welch says. 

“Many believe they won’t be financially secure, or will have a better life than their parents. Getting and keeping a job may not be a possibility.” But the home can be managed. Gen Z is too often taken to be entitled or nihilistic. What they really are—what the wives really are, Welch says—is scared. What would it be like, they’re trying to figure out, to not feel out of control?

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