What is this midlife crisis among the 30-year-olds I know? Millennial women — at least those who reside in professional bubbles — seem to have it all. They are better educated, more prosperous, less encumbered by cultural expectations than any previous generation of women. They delay marriage (if they marry at all) and children (if they choose to conceive). They can own or rent. They can save or spend. These women have been on familiar terms with their ambitions all their lives — raised by careful parents to aim high (millennial women are likelier than their male peers to have professional jobs, to be managers, and to work in finance), and tutored by their cultural icons to perform their empowerment, and never submit. You know, “Bow down, bitches,” as they say.
So why are the well-employed, ambitious 30-year-olds of my acquaintance feeling so adrift, as discontented as the balding midlife sad sacks whose cliché dissatisfactions made Updike rich? The women complain of the enervating psychic effects of the professional treadmill as white-collar piecework and describe their dread as they contemplate bleak futures — decade after decade, they imagine, unfulfilled. After a lifetime of saying ‘yes’ to their professional hunger — these are the opportunity-seizers, the list-makers, the ascendant females, weaned on Lean In — they’ve lost it, like a child losing grasp of a helium balloon. Grief-stricken, they are baffled too, for they have always been propelled by their drive. They were the ones who were supposed to run stuff — who as girls imagined themselves leaving the airport in stylish trench coats, hailing a taxi with one hand while holding their cell in the other.
Now, “there’s no vision,” one woman said to me. “Nothing solid,” said another. Limp, desperate, they fantasize about quitting their good jobs and moving home to Michigan. They murmur about purpose, about the concrete satisfactions of baking a loaf of bread or watching a garden grow. One young woman I know dreams about leaving her consulting job, which takes her to Dubai and Prague, to move back home and raise a bunch of kids. Another, an accountant with corner-office aspirations, has decided to “phone it in” for a few years while she figures out what she wants to do. Mostly, though, these women don’t bail out. They are too responsible, and too devoted to their wavering dreams. They stay put, diligently working, ordering Seamless and waiting for something — anything — to reignite them, to convince them that their wanting hasn’t abandoned them for good. Any goal would do, one woman told me: a child, a dog — “even a refrigerator.” People have been motivated by less.
Get a grip, I want to tell them, for I am old enough to be, if not their mother then their world-weary aunt. Who ever said that work should be the be-all? You work for money. The money you earn pays the rent. You are the very, very lucky few, in possession of the jobs and apartments that every tier-one college student wants. But the more I listen, the more I think I hear in these young women’s voices the echo of something familiar — the complaints of a long-ago generation but in reverse. The female dissatisfaction chronicled by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique was prompted by a widespread awakening to the bullshit promises of domestic happiness, manufactured by culture to make female containment look good. Now another bullshit promise has taken its place, and another generation is waking up. The men in charge are still in charge. It is impossible for women to continue to have faith in a vision of their own empowerment, when that empowerment is, in fact, a pose. It is not true that a gleaming kitchen floor is the key to female satisfaction. And “Bow down, bitches” is a lie.
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