The Ambition Collision


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.

The myth of female empowerment has always been on a collision course with the reality, but until relatively recently working females took this understanding for granted. We knew that we were tokens. We laughed as we made vagina jokes when the bosses weren’t listening, for we could count: one or two of us in the top tier, compared to ten or twelve of them. Our music was rough and cynical and filled with longing. But millennial women made the mistake of dutifully believing what they were taught. They presumed their power: everything they read or watched, everyone suggested to them that the path ahead was clear. They got more degrees, they entered law in greater numbers, they knew they could support themselves and had no gendered expectations around eventual family.

What does it mean to grow up listening to “Roar” when female achievement has flatlined? The wage gap is about the same as it has been for a decade, which is to say since these women were in college, buckled down tending to their GPAs and loading up their resumes with extracurriculars. There is still no occupation in which a woman who works full time earns a lot more than a man, and few in which women have parity. Women have less savings than men, and are less likely to qualify for a mortgage. The cost of living, for everyone, has risen in urban areas. These are the parameters of the psychic vise, for growing numbers of women are the main or sole breadwinners for their families. When a woman delays children and partnership into her 30s to earn money and establish independence and then sees how her paths are blocked, it is perhaps no wonder that something like anguish is the result. (I was furious at Rory Gilmore for getting accidentally pregnant in the end — all that wasted potential! — but maybe Rory saw better than I did the corner she was in.)

The professional stagnation my millennial friends report as an existential cloud is real. According to a new study by the Population Reference Bureau, fewer millennial women are working in STEM jobs than women in Generation X, unemployment among millennial women is higher than in Generation X, and overall well being (measured by rising suicide rates, poverty, maternal death) is on the decline. “There’s this sense of not being able to make progress,” says Beth Jarosz, an author of the PRB study. She started the research last summer, she said, when there was a female candidate running for president, and her colleagues were hopeful that they would find significant measures of millennial progress. Instead, “the more we dug, the more we were like, ‘Oh, God, this is awful. There’s really, really stalled momentum from Gen X to millennial.’”

Women enter workplaces filled with ambition and optimism and then, by 30 or so, become wise to the ways in which they are stuck. According to a 2015 study of female millennials by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, women’s awakening to workplace sexism is a slow, inexorable evolution. As they age, their dissatisfactions increase so that by the time they’re 30 or 34, two-thirds say their employer doesn’t do enough to promote and encourage diverse hiring; more than a third say they don’t have female role models; and just 39 percent say they believe they can rise to the top of the organization they’re in (down from 49 percent of younger millennial women). At all ages, millennial women say they feel that men get the plum international assignments — even though they also believe that the plum international assignments are crucial to advancing their careers.

In general, young millennial men feel more bought into work than young women — more supported and more contented at their jobs, according to data provided by the Families and Work Institute, even though the young women are likelier to report that they put their jobs first, over family. It’s as if the women have cleared spaces in their lives for meteoric careers, and then those careers have been less gratifying, or harder won, or more shrunken than they’d imagined. And what’s there to fill the space, except more Insta images of female gratification — vacations! cocktails! — that inadequately reflect the lives they lead?

A dose of perspective is, perhaps, required here. The lesson of The Feminine Mystique was not that every woman should quit the burbs and go to work, but that no woman should be expected to find all her happiness in one place — in kitchen appliances, for example. And the lesson for my discontented friends is not that they should ditch their professional responsibilities but that they should stop looking to work, as their mothers looked to husbands, as the answer to the big questions they have about their lives. “I think possibly work has replaced ‘and they got married and lived happily ever after,’ and that is a false promise,” says Ellen Galinsky, co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. “Everyone needs to have more than one thing in their life. We find people who are dual-centric to be most satisfied. If people put an equivalent stress on their life outside of their job they get further ahead and are more satisfied at their job.”

To be clear: This is not about settling, about making peace with the humdrum sexism of traditional workplaces. Rage and revolution are called for, and such upheaval requires more professional investment by more females, not less. Instead, this is about a shift in perspective — an appreciation for imperfect circumstances and unmet yearnings as facts of life, and a willingness to seek gratifications and inspirations outside the boundaries of a job. Dogs are helpful in this regard. So are children and friends and sports and museums and live music and sex and activism and charity. The other day, I saw a 6-year-old girl wearing a T-shirt that said “Undefeatable.” She was skipping down the street and holding her father’s hand. And I thought, That’s the problem right there. Surely, that girl is as defeatable — or as undefeatable — as anyone. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t grow up to fight.