On my summer travels I met women who had choices about what to do with their lives. Choices about how to spend their days, and where to be. We hiked, climbed a glacier, shared dinner, but most of all we reached across racial and language barriers and shared our self.
One women I met was 34, a Chinese nurse, and home was Hong Kong. Her English was halting but sufficient enough to tell me that spending her money on seeing new places, meeting people from other cultures topped saving and buying an ultra expensive small flat in a crowded city. We spoke of marriage, in her view a prospect of bondage. Instead if marriage she preferred a looser arrangement with friends.
Another woman was 38, a Danish theater director and home was Greenland. Her English was fluent and we spoke of living the single life among a culture of men who lacked communication skills, who couldn’t talk about feelings, who knew about work and making money in a harsh climate. We spoke of using theater to break audiences out of their shell…
There was another 28 year old Danish citizen with a British boyfriend and home was a puzzle. She had lived in the US and played basketball for an American University. We talked of citizenship choices, career choices and love. Love seemed secondary to choosing where home could be, what “home” meant.
A 34 year old Canadian financial consultant had left home in Montreal. She spoke English and French fluently. We spoke of travel as a way to open new horizons. She had recently broken her engagement with her partner over the issue of having children some day. A career partnership with the man she loved wasn’t what she saw as happiness, family was. She was torn between her heart and the future she wanted.
A 28 year old German woman had spent four months on the trail from Mexico to Canada. Close to the end of the journey, she wasn’t ready to stop. We spoke of hiking as a form of meditation. She decided she would keep walking and hike another trail until her visa ran out. Her happiness was hiking.
All of the millennial women I met this summer were from different parts of the world, different races, educated and multi-lingual. They all had choices that allowed for personal development.
As millennial women from mostly western societies, they won’t have to break out of the subservient marriage expectations, and limited career choices, women in other, more conservative cultures, face. The women I met can seek adventure, find their edges of comfort and expand into new discovery. The women I met shared their dreams, their desires, their need for freedom.
These women aren’t choosing the formulaic lives women in America had in the fifties and sixties. A time now heralded as “Great” by a certain politician running for president.
Stephanie Coontz, a historical expert on family and marriage, responds in a recent interview for Sun magazine (September 2016, page 5) to her interviewer’s statement of “It’s often said that people who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it’ with the following words:
“I’m concerned they think they can repeat the past - which is dangerous”.
Coontz, who recently revised and updated her 1992 book, “The Way we never were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap”, puts forth her perspective on marriage, love and happiness as it developed through the ages. It becomes clear that the current nostalgia for “family values” in America are a memory of 50 years ago when the nuclear family with women as home makers and men as breadwinners, is idolized. It was the first time in economic history when one person’s salary could support a family. And how great was that for women? Yes, there was a certain economic security in the arrangement, but for many women it was also a prison, preventing them from self expression and personal development.
In the last 50 years women have fought hard to change gender politics and get to this place of choice the millennial women in western societies are experiencing now. Why would we give it up and allow those who haven’t been able to adapt to the economical and psychological changes which have taken place, drag us back into an imagined past that can’t be repeated, a past most women don’t want to repeat?
The happiness data from around the world show that in countries where there is support for two career families in terms of parental leave and caregiving leave, such as Sweden and Denmark, parents report themselves as happy. In countries where that support isn’t there or extremely limited, i.e. America, non-parents report themselves as happier than parents who are juggling careers, children and extended families. Lets not even talk about happiness in countries where women can’t have careers, or where they are the sole breadwinners living with abuse, poverty and war.
Rather than going back to the past, lets adapt to what the future brings us, and find ways to support living arrangements that lead to happiness, that allow choice. As the women I met this summer told me, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all living arrangement that works under the current variable economic and family circumstances in this country. There is no ideal “Great” American way of life. America and the world is in flux, always changing. If we continue to support and create race and gender equality, equal educational and career opportunities, and equal access to health and family planning services, people will be able to choose a way of life that makes them happy. The women I met this summer showed me it doesn’t take a politician to make that choice for them.