Sunday, 13 January 2013

Preparing teenage girls for tomorrow’s world

I have been wondering why, with such advances in female education and careers in the late 20th century, many mature, trained or highly educated women do not seem hugely happy with their lot, failing to exhibit the apparent satisfaction of mature women of earlier generations.  I do not include myself in this observation - but I have been doing some research into this question.

Women, today, in comparison with men, are winning university places, including in engineering and maths, by a ratio of 60/40. In other words, women graduating today must carry the burden of “nation-caring” as well as “home-caring” for the next 45 years, due to a shortage of highly educated men. Getting a higher education seriously diminishes a woman’s chances of marrying and having children. Indeed women’s higher education is being used to reduce the population in many areas of the world.  40% of those graduate women born in 1970 in the UK reached forty, childless.  If the West survives the current economic downturn, we can expect that figure to rise.

Many girls, today, want the pearl of price that outlives the rare gift of beauty : a good education and a career. But in getting it, they risk a lifetime of relentless work and childlessness.  Of course, a minority of women, with and without degrees, will marry professional, or other high income men, who can provide what was once thought of as a traditional marriage. But this is increasingly an illusion or fantasy, fed by novels, films and romantic comedies. One thinks of  witty (but poor) Elizabeth Bennett marrying multi-millionaire Mr Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice”.  To be honest, what was called romance was often a kind of glorified gold-digging using the “weapons” of beauty and wit. Real romance is marrying for love alone and sticking it out, come rain or shine.

Many girls born in the mid 20th century (as I was) had imagined that they would work for a bit, then marry like their mothers, going back part-time work in their 40s.   Instead, a good number are finding themselves having to work full-time in their 50s often as the main breadwinner, having had one year off for childbirth.

It seems, to me, that many women in the late 20th century were overtaken by the unprecedented speed of change. As a result, many of my contemporaries find themselves as the main family breadwinner, having had to adapt, very fast indeed.  Those who have not been able to adapt at speed to this demise of the traditional marriage role (I have a lot of sympathy for them) have found themselves to some extent overtaken by free-floating disappointment, a deep sense of failure, sometimes intensified by money worries.   There is a limit to how far anyone can adapt. I hope I do not offend the adaptors too, by suggesting that having to go on adapting has brought many of them near to breaking point too.

Added to this is their fast-changing end game, in terms of expectations of pensions and retirement.  The same women are finding themselves sandwiched at both ends of their adult lives, between reality and previous expectations.  Failed expectations of perfect love and marriage in the involuntarily single, can make them very depressed and until women see the most important thing in their life as their career, they will continue to suffer deeply, in this way.

Future generations of women need to make clearer assessments about romantic marriage and children. They need to be brought up explicity to be breadwinners and to work well into what used to be retirement. I can recall lessons at school about what we would do with our lives when we could mostly give up work, due to increasing technology such as computers....

If I were a teenage girl today, I would call for:

a) a clear analysis, based on evidence, of the careers with the best outcomes for women i.e.  offering women the best terms and conditions, salaries, careers in which women can clearly succeed in line with their competence, free from the often automatic dominance of men. It is often said that men are promoted two roles higher than their competence (see London Evening Standard article 11 January about the “Paula Syndrome” about women languishing well below their competence levels, while company boards are dominated by men);

b) family and social recognition that women must now make take their career choice and pathway more seriously than men supported by the proper provision of maternity and childcare at work, with implicit discouragement against leaving jobs, on a whim etc;

c) a clear explanation, based on evidence, of what modern marriage means for women, what they should reasonably expect from modern relationships, financially, emotionally and in terms of social support.

Some men might like modern women to live in the world of 2000 years ago but that is not possible and, in many ways, it is not desirable. However as a Christian, I highly value marriage and believe that it offers both sexes the best way of getting through life. However, one area I would like to research another day is : how women (and men) make marriage choices.

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