A few years ago, a colleague of mine boarded a plane from Portland to San Francisco, the first leg of a journey to Paris. She found herself sitting next to an elderly American woman who asked her why she was headed to France. “To see my boyfriend,” she responded.
“Oh, you aren’t married,” the woman asked, mouth agape.
The conversation that followed would make any feminist recoil in horror and provide the writers of Mad Men with enough fodder for a half season’s worth of episodes. The woman was shocked (shocked!!) that not only was she not married at the age of 23 but that she had no intention of ever having children. The two of them spent the rest of the flight feeling like they were sitting next to someone who was completely, and utterly, insane.
Naturally, this anecdote is one of the first things that popped into my mind while I was reading this spectacularly awful article from The Guardian yesterday. The piece quotes a survey conducted by Aviva, a UK-based insurance firm, that asked 2,000 Brits “what’s the best age to be?” According to the survey, it’s 35. The article’s biggest transgression is that it barely scratches the surface of what is an incredibly interesting, and troubling, topic that impacts an entire generation of people across the planet. This paragraph, in particular, jumped out at me:
By 35, those questioned said they expected people to have reached milestones like buying a house, finding a partner and having a first child, but have several years to go before reaching the peak of their career at age 39.
The comments that follow the article are fascinating, with some readers mocking it for being ridiculously short-sighted and reinforcing outdated and unreasonable objectives for people in their 30s. Then there are others who say they’ve hit these benchmarks but are jealous of their friends who are still single or say they’re unsatisfied with their lives in general. The only thing that everyone agrees on is that housing is incredibly $!#$!@! overpriced in London.
So all of this begs the question: why is the whole “gotta get married, buy a house and have kids” thing still the central cultural expectation for individuals living in first world nations? Why are these goals still the brass ring so many of us strive towards? Consider the postcard above, which I found in a museum gift shop a while back (feel free to click on this one and the others for a closer look). My best guess is that they’re from India and date back to the ’60s or ’70s.
It should go without saying that a *lot* has changed in regards to socio-economics over the last 40 years. We’ve seen the rise of feminism, the decline of manufacturing, a dramatic uptick in college graduates and more than a few recession. The average worker in the United States is expected to have a college education before they’ll even be considered for any sort of office job and, if they find one, they’re perpetually facing the possibility of layoffs, corporate downsizing or their company just plain going out of business.
Meanwhile, the average age of couples having their first child keeps rising in both Europe and North America, despite the increasing risks of giving birth past the age of 30. The never-ending economic downturn and cost of living in Japan has all but destroyed that country’s birthrate. This article, from 2010, describes shuttered elementary schools and empty playgrounds in Tokyo. So few there are having children because so few can afford to raise them.
It takes so much more effort to build a life and a home these days in comparison to a generation ago when it was still possible to raise a family with a high-school education. Despite all of these factors, having the perfect house, the perfect marriage and the perfect kids continues to be the universal standard for life around the world. It’s almost as if we all have an invisible checklist buried in our heads that consists of the following: “1. Graduate from high school. 2. Graduate from college. 3. Get a job. 4. Get married. 5. Get a house. 6. Have kids.”
Is it because the “need to breed” is built into our DNA or is it because deeply embedded social norms can’t be shaken off in a single generation or two? For what it’s worth, I think the answer to both questions is a firm “yep.”
If you’re in your 30s, you probably have friends who “have their shit together.” They’re married and they’re constantly updating their Facebook profiles with photos and minutia about their kids (if you are one of these people, first off, congratulations. Secondly, enough with the kid photos, already. The vacant stares of your moppets is a tiresome thing to look at everyday. Put up some links to memes and more photos of your cats. Or work the cats into photos of your kids, m’kay?). Then there are the others, the ones that have returned to college to pursue their PhD or have been canned from their job and are struggling to make ends meet. Amidst all of these archetypes, there are probably a few others who are laser-focused on their careers, have chosen to join the Peace Corps or are spending their Wednesday afternoons complaining about archaic cultural norms on WordPress. *ahem*
We live in such a weird era, a time of transition where the old rules of the past no longer apply. Once upon a time, kids would dream of becoming baseball players or actors but settle for jobs as lawyers or executives. Now they dream of becoming lawyers and executives but settle for gigs as wage slaves and quietly pray that they won’t get fired on zero notice. Given these changes, it’s disconcerting that certain timeworn expectations remain. If you, yourself, are kid free, in your 30s and don’t feel the pressure to “settle down,” give your parents a ring and bring up the topic of grandchildren.
If world markets continue to decline and if the notion of a “having a career” becomes more and more of a myth in western society (“Once upon a time, lad, it was possibly to raise a family on a salary from a production line and with a single degree you could become a high-powered investment banker. Believe it or not!”), it’ll be interesting to see what sort of impact this has on everything from to austerity to birthrates to cultural norms around the globe. Will 20 and 30-somethings still feel these obligations a generation or two from now?