I’ve got a female friend I talk to fairly regularly, and while we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, I find she has a pretty good take on the American situation regarding men’s and women’s relations. So, while talking the other day about how young women are holding out for so long these days, she gave me a good insight about how attitudes amongst the young are influencing family formation.
As one gets older, life patterns that were hidden by youth and inexperience start to emerge. This is often accompanied by the realization that a lot of what we took for granted while young was dead wrong. For example, when in their adolescence and 20s, people tend to assume that “anything is possible” — that if you just believe hard enough things can come true. It’s an endearing trait in young people, and rather sweet, but eminently subject to manipulation, and usually not even close to true.
The reality is that by about 25, your future can be fairly well predicted by your life at that point. Perhaps not the details, but the general character. The thing is, people don’t change much past that age. Of course, things can happen to alter your course. You could land a great job, get laid off, develop an addiction or come into an inheritance. However, you can usually take a look at what someone is doing at around 25 or so and predict what they will be doing in ten years. Chances are, it won’t be too different. This holds true even for those on the fringes, such as Bill Gates and habitual criminals. Bill Gates may not have been so rich at 25, but he was already working hard and competing in business. The circumstances may have changed around him as he succeeded, but the man and his mission remained fundamentally the same. Someone in jail for theft at 25 may eventually get better at stealing, and land a job where he can do so without facing prosecution (e.g. faith healer, new age guru, etc.), but he’s still going to be the kind of guy who likes taking without offering anything in return.
However, young American women have been sold a bill of goods. They think that if they hold out and continue to believe, something miraculous will happen. A recent story about Marina Keegan, a Yale graduate who tragically died in a car crash, highlights this.
Here’s a passage from her final essay:
We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time. There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective conscious as we lay alone after a party, or pack up our books when we give in and go out – that it is somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead. More accomplished, more specialized. More on the path to somehow saving the world, somehow creating or inventing or improving. That it’s too late now to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement.
When we came to Yale, there was this sense of possibility. This immense and indefinable potential energy – and it’s easy to feel like that’s slipped away. We never had to choose and suddenly we’ve had to. Some of us have focused ourselves. Some of us know exactly what we want and are on the path to get it; already going to med school, working at the perfect NGO, doing research. To you I say both congratulations and you suck.
For most of us, however, we’re somewhat lost in this sea of liberal arts. Not quite sure what road we’re on and whether we should have taken it. If only I had majored in biology…if only I’d gotten involved in journalism as a freshman…if only I’d thought to apply for this or for that…
What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. Get a post-bac or try writing for the first time. The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.
Marina was a much-loved daughter and bright, energetic girl. The point I’m making here is in no way intended to disparage her memory, and as I mentioned before this sense of hope and possibility is one of the most endearing things about the young. The only reason I’m choosing her essay to make a point is that, because she was a gifted writer, she was very good at expressing exactly the outlook I am referring to here.
Actually, Marina points out two mistakes that characterize youthful thinking. The first, which she herself rejects, is the idea that one can plot out a perfect path through taking predetermined steps. This is flawed reasoning. Although we can count on being the same person some years down the road, circumstances are very hard to predict. The first group of Yale students is mistaken, but perhaps not as far off the mark as the second.
The second attitude, which characterizes her personal philosophy, is that it’s never too late to do anything. She calls the idea that it might be important to do some things before they are too late “comical” and “hilarious.” A 22-year-old Yale graduate may still have some time to laugh at this notion, but really not as much as one might think. Four years of college buys women precious little time in the mating market. It may make them more eligible as far as stable, employable husbands are concerned, but the same factors that affect the value of a working-class girl are at work with Ivy League grads.
I’d guess that college buys young women about exactly as much time as it takes for them to complete it, because their pool of future mates tends to go through the same process (although the distorted sex ratio in college is changing this). That’s to say that she has her best shot to land a good match up to perhaps 25, whereas an average girl might have it up to 21. It isn’t to say that they have to get married immediately, but rather that by that age they should have already found a future husband. Most people put off marriage for a few years, so when you see the well-educated woman marrying at 28 or so, she’s probably already had that boyfriend for several years.
The problem with young women today is that they internalize this “anything is possible” attitude and don’t lose it until it really is too late for many of them. They think they can do better at 30 than at 22, which, in most cases, is simply wrong. Some might say that family and men are not a priority for these girls, but women for whom this is really true throughout life are an insignificant minority. In fact, most women are holding out precisely because they think they can get a better man later, perhaps when they have a better job and work with more powerful men.
But these girls are not going to change fundamentally, and in their early 20s are at the peak of their beauty while still retaining an innocent charm. Nothing about their looks or personality is going to make them more appealing at 30 than at 22, and the men available to them are not going to get any better, either.
And what of the men? At 25, is he serious, responsible and cautious? There you have a man who will probably have a good, but perhaps not remarkable, career. Does he prefer smoking weed and playing video games in his spare time? There you have a future couch potato. Is he competitive, materialistic and a smooth talker? Sounds like a salesman. Does he charm his way into bed with you and then drift away after a couple months of passion? Well, in that case you just got gamed.
The point is that neither men nor women change fundamentally past a certain point, and the same guys young women have available in their early 20s are generally the same guys that will be available at 30, only they will be older and, due to marriage, there will be far fewer of them.
For men who want a family, the same rules apply, although they are somewhat more forgiving. However, contrary to some common refrains I read, younger women are not always better for mature men. It’s easy to fall in love with a beautiful young girl while overlooking some fundamental incompatibility or flaws in the relationship, and these days, without any protection from marriage, that can end pretty badly. A man may be able to wait a bit longer, and even gain some by doing so, but past a certain point – say the early 30s – that no longer applies except in the case of very wealthy or powerful men. By 35, most men are faced with the same problem that women run into in their late 20s: the pool of potential mates is aging and rapidly shrinking.
It’s time we started being honest with the young people around us. When I was a kid, we were force-fed the message that we can do and be whatever we want from before kindergarten. Too many of us find out the hard way that this was a lie, but fortunately when it comes to career and getting by in life we tend to survive it. However, when it comes to family, the results can be far more cruel, especially for women. Time tends to accelerate past a certain age, and the 25-year old woman soon finds herself 30, and then 35, and at that point she’s got precious little of it left. Perhaps at 22 she was laughing about the “comical” notion that it could ever be too late, but after a certain point it is no longer comedy, but tragedy, and her laughter turns to tears.