April 20 2012

We Want It All

Lisa Schiffren

The Pew Study released yesterday  ) on what young women want is clear about a few things: Young women want everything they can get. And why not?

“Two thirds of 18- to 34-year-old women say being successful in a high-paying career is "one of the most important things" or "very important" in their lives, according to a Pew Research Center report out Thursday. Women with that attitude surpass their male counterparts: 59% of young men have the same stance.”  

 Pew researchers attempt to correlate this spike in female financial ambition with the fact that women now get significantly more undergraduate degrees than men, and a roughly equal number of professional degrees. 

 I’d say the reason is simpler.  Perhaps this long, deep recession has pushed many families to focus on the importance of money, rather than gratification, as the point of a career.  Perhaps the old “do what you love,” advice no longer seems as smart as the idea that you should do the thing you like for which there is the most demand, so you can support yourself, and, if necessary, others.  

That’s market thinking, and it is not a bad thing for women to have absorbed it.  It means, for one thing, that they understand that the purpose of work is to earn a living.  “Meaning,” while always a good thing to get from your work, is not the central point.  Except if you are very lucky and manage to get a good balance of each. This is a sign of a certain maturing of (the positive side of) feminist economic empowerment.

The study is not all good news.  The U.S. News story notes that “In the new surveys, 37% of 18-to-34 year-old females said having a successful marriage is "one of the most important things" in their lives vs. 28% in 1997. Nearly 60% (59%) say being a good parent is "one of the most important things" vs. 42% in 1997.

The chirpy Pew analyst spins this positively: "Women are placing a higher priority on work, but they are also putting a higher priority on having a good marriage and being good parents," Parker says. "They aren't going to let these things slide."

Well, some things clearly are going to slide: 60 percent of young women think it’s important to be a good mother.  Okay. Good.  They’re right.  But only 37% of these women feel that having a successful marriage is critical.  Marriage will continue its precipitous slide into niche lifestyle status, it would seem.   It would be nice if someone told the financially ambitious young women who want children that they will be more successful at both work and parenting if they have a successful marriage, than an unsuccessful one – or none at all.   Sadly these attitudes suggest that there isn’t going to be a serious diminution of the 41% out of wedlock childbearing rate any time soon.

And that should explain the unexamined statistic up front in the story-- why fewer men (59% vs. 67%) than women care about maximizing their income.  Perhaps some of their wives will pick up the slack.  But I bet most of them get the loud, clear message that their female peers find them expendable, which is what it means when they say they care about succeeding in their work, and as mothers, but not so much as wives. 

 

 

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