Feminism, which supposedly freed women to do whatever we want, whenever we want, can't work out a way to force or manufacture happiness. It seems that the freedom to leave our families, to work and be mothers and juggle every responsibly under the sun, to control our reproductive systems and to kill our unborn children, still hasn't made us happy. Imagine that.
What's Happening To Women's Happiness?
by Marcus Buckingham
September 17th, 2009
Imagine it is 1969 and we're in a thriving American city. Let's choose Detroit. The '60s were good to the Motor City, and the future would have looked bright as new chrome. Now, imagine stopping a working woman on Detroit's Woodward Avenue, perhaps a young bank clerk, and asking if she would cast her mind forward, decades into the future. Not to picture the flying cars and space-themed restaurants that always seem to pop up in visions of the future, but to think about the role of women at work, in business, in government, in life. What do you think she would have said?
1969 was an intense, rousing time for women in America. Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique a few years earlier, and had founded the National Organization for Women in 1966. And Gloria Steinem had just published the essay in New York Magazine that clearly separated the modern Women's Movement from other oppressed groups, "After Black Power: Women's Liberation," in which she called for meaningful work, equal pay, and the goal for all women to be freed from the role of only "servicing men and their children."
Fast forward 40 years: no matter how optimistic the guesses of our "woman-on-a-Detroit-street," I bet they wouldn't have outstripped what's actually happened.
I doubt she would have guessed that by the early twenty-first century, women would be running the governments of countries as powerful and widespread as Germany and Ireland, Bangladesh and New Zealand, Chile, Mozambique, and Jamaica. Or that the wife of one U.S. president would spend months in 2008 as the national favorite to become president herself and, barely failing in that quest, would become an outspoken Secretary of State, or that the Speaker of the House would be a woman, or that John McCain would choose a moose-hunting, helicopter-riding, crowd-pleasing mother of five as his running mate because she'd stared down oil companies as governor of the tough state of Alaska.
How about education? I'm sure she would have forecast that more women would be completing high school and attending college, but do you think she'd have predicted that during the 2008 school year, 59 percent of all the bachelor's degrees and 61 percent of all the master's degrees would be earned by women, not by men? Or that by 2009, four out of the eight Ivy League universities--Harvard, Brown, Penn and Princeton--would have female presidents?
And work? Again, she would probably have bet that, in the future, more women would be working, but would she have guessed that October will be the first month in which women outnumber men in the workforce, that women would be holding more management and supervisory positions than men, by a margin of 37 percent to 31 percent, that in like-for-like work women and men with the same amount of work experience would be earning the same, and that women's pay would actually be increasing faster than men's? I doubt it.
Yet the biggest surprise would have come if you had asked her just one more question. Given all the evidence of women running corporations and universities, hospitals, media empires, branches of government, army divisions, and countries, do you think women in the future will be happier?
Of course they will be happier, she would have said. With all these opportunities and achievements, how could they not be?
Well, as it turns out, too easily.
Each year since 1972, the United States General Social Survey has asked men and women: "How happy are you, on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being very happy, and 1 being not too happy?" This survey includes a representative sample of men and women of all ages, education levels, income levels, and marital status--1,500 per year for a total of almost 50,000 individuals thus far--and so it gives us a most reliable picture of what's happened to men's and women's happiness over the last few decades.
As you can imagine, a survey this massive generates a multitude of findings, (see the full report by Wharton Professors Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers) but here are the two most important discoveries.
First, since 1972, women's overall level of happiness has dropped, both relative to where they were forty years ago, and relative to men. You find this drop in happiness in women regardless of whether they have kids, how many kids they have, how much money they make, how healthy they are, what job they hold, whether they are married, single or divorced, how old they are, or what race they are. (The one and only exception: African-American women are now slightly happier than they were back in 1972, although they remain less happy than African American men.)
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