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Why Are Women Unhappier Than They Were 40 Years Ago?


An excerpt from Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently, by Marcus Buckingham

Because the idea is, in the long run, that women's liberation will be men's liberation, too. — Gloria Steinem

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 as 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 that era's 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?

That year—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, Friedan's more controversial compatriot, 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 has actually happened.

I doubt she would have guessed that by the early 21st 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, 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, the 2008 Republican candidate, 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 our woman on the street would have forecast that more girls would be completing high school and attending college, but do you think she'd have predicted that during the 2008 school year, 59% of all bachelor's degrees and 61% of all master's degrees would be earned by women, not 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 women would be holding more management and supervisory positions than men, by a margin of 37% to 31%? Would she suspect that, in like-for-like work, women would be earning exactly what men earn, 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 and countries, do you think women in the future will be happier?

Of course they will be happy, she would have said. With all this choice and opportunity, how could they not be?

Well, as it turns out: too easily.

Each year since 1972, the U.S. 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 statuses—1,500 per year for a total of almost 50,000 individuals thus far—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, but for our purposes here are the two most important discoveries. First, since 1972 women's overall level of happiness has dropped, both relative to where they were 40 years ago and relative to men's. 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—though they remain less happy than African American men.)

And in case you're wondering, this finding is neither unique to this study, nor is it unique to the U.S. In the last couple of years, results from six major studies of happiness have been released:

The United States General Social Survey (46,000 people, from 1972 to 2007)

The Virginia Slims Survey of American Women (26,000 people, from 1972 to 2000)

The Monitoring the Future survey (430,000 U.S. 12th graders, from 1976 to 2005)

The British Household Panel Study (121,000 people, from 1991 to 2004)

The Eurobarometer analysis (636,000 people, from 1973 to 2002, covering 15 countries)

The International Social Survey Program (97,462 people, from 1991 to 2001, covering 35 developed countries)

All told, more than 1.3 million men and women have been surveyed over the last 30 years. Wherever researchers have been able to collect reliable data on happiness, the finding is always the same: Greater educational, political, and employment opportunities have corresponded to decreases in life happiness for women as compared with men.

The second discovery is this: Although women begin their lives more fulfilled than men, as they age they gradually become less happy. Men, in contrast, get happier as they get older.

This creeping unhappiness can seep into all aspects of a woman's life. When the researchers asked more specific questions, such as, "How satisfied are you with your marriage?" and "How happy are you with the things you own?" and "How satisfied are you with your finances?" the pattern was always the same: women begin their life more satisfied than men, and wind up less satisfied. Sure, the crossover points vary a little—women's happiness with their marriage sinks below men's at the age of 39; their satisfaction with their finances dips at 41; and by 44, they're more dissatisfied than men with stuff they own.

But overall, the trajectory is consistent, and consistently downhill. As you can see from the graph, by the time women reach 47, they are, overall, less happy with their life than men, and the trend continues on down from there.

Of course, this doesn't mean that every individual woman becomes less happy than every individual man. We've all got our own stuff going on and, man or woman, some days we're in a happy purple haze, some days we've got the blues, and some days we even succumb to the "mean reds," as Holly Golightly called them. Nor does it mean that this darkening outlook on life is necessarily going to afflict you. You are a unique human being, blessed with the freedom to make your own choices, and so it's completely within your power to choose a life, and a perspective on life, that becomes more fulfilling as you get older, not less. There'd be little point reading a book such as this if you didn't believe you had this power.

However, right now, the two trends we see in the data are real and telling: Over the last few decades, women have become less happy with their lives. And, as women get older, they get sadder.

Look around and you can easily find other research that confirms and colors these two trends. Take stress as an example. Sociologists from Ohio State University examined time diary data from two national surveys, one conducted in 1976 and the other in 1999, to see whether men's and women's experience of their "free time" had changed over 20 years. Here's what they found:

Women were much more likely to feel sometimes or always rushed in 1999 than in 1975, while men were not. So not only are women becoming less happy decade by decade, their minutes are becoming more stress-filled as well.

Each hour of free time reduces men's odds of feeling rushed by 8%, but each hour of free time has no similar effect for women. So whatever is happening to women in their so-called free time is not helping them feel less stressed.

For women the odds of feeling sometimes or always rushed are 2.2 times higher for married women with children than for single, childless women. The same is not true for men. Translation: kids inhibit relaxation for women, but not for men.

Looking beyond pure survey data, the World Health Organization can track what this increase in stress does to a woman's mental health. According to their most recent analysis, depression is the second most debilitating disease for women (heart disease is first), while for men depression clocks in at No. 10. As a result, women choose to medicate themselves with anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication twice as often as men do. Never one to miss an opportunity, the big pharmaceutical companies nurse this need by targeting two-thirds of all advertising of these medications explicitly to women.

'"Hey," you might say. "Life's tough. Deal with it." And of course you'd be right. Life is not designed with anyone's happiness in mind, and it has the disconcerting habit of not rewarding good people as much as we'd expect, punishing the wicked less vigorously than we'd like, and even on occasion getting the two completely mixed up.

Even so, only the most wasted of cynics would deny that something's got to give. Not only is this "tough life" significantly tougher on women than it is on men, but the advances of the last 40 years were supposed to have changed things for the better. And not just for womankind, but for each individual woman. Those hard-won rights, opportunities, and advantages were supposed to have netted women more than just another burdensome role to play—"you at work." They were supposed to have fostered in each woman feelings of fulfillment and happiness and even, for the special few, the sustained thrill of living of an authentic life.

This hasn't happened. Whether you're looking at the data or reading these stories or just listening to the sound of your own voice, the conclusion is hard to escape: Over the last 40 years or so, life is not becoming more fulfilling for women; it is, in every way we can measure, becoming more draining instead. To use Thomas Jefferson's words, while women now have the liberty to choose whichever life they'd like, many are struggling in their pursuit of a happy life.

Used by permission. Adapted from Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham (Thomas Nelson Publishers, copyright 2009).


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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