Over the last few months, I’ve come to believe there is a crisis facing young women. Of course, this is based only on my own knowledge and experience, which is primarily of British and university-educated women, but I think it applies more generally as well. The crisis is complex and multifaceted, but I believe it has some key components:
- An immense pressure to succeed. In an increasingly globalised and competitive world, no longer is it acceptable to be average. Young people, and women especially, are told they must excel at everything they do if they are to lead a happy life. The traditional aspects of society- the religious institutions, many families, and certain media outlets- insist women must be brilliant as wives and mothers. Equally pushy are the more progressive elements of society, who argue that women should have outstanding careers, to achieve parity with the most successful men, even when this isn’t always what women want. The combined pressure to be amazing both at home and at work causes considerable distress amongst young women.
- A worsening mental health crisis. Anxiety, depression and other mental disorders are on the rise. And while the nation’s deteriorating mental health affects both men and women, I think it has affected women more. Despite a general increase in mental health awareness, women are still expected to have a stiff upper lip. As a society, we don’t talk about our personal lives and struggles enough. This aversion to openness makes individual struggles harder, particularly for women, whose struggles are more frequently dismissed by other women as well as men. To make matters worse, when men are suffering, the effects are more visible because men are more prone to be violent and aggressive, making their problems seem worse. Women’s poor mental health can be less obvious, so a resolution to their problems is less likely.
- The higher education boom. University is portrayed as a liberating institution. Freed from the constraints of home and family life, women can enjoy the benefits of living independently. For most women, this is a fantastic opportunity. As a man I don’t mind that an increasing majority of graduates are women. But even those for whom university is a net benefit, there are often significant drawbacks. Women at university face far too much pressure to succeed, both academically and socially. Being weird or even just unconventional is less acceptable for women. Also, in my experience, women are more likely to be bullied and ostracised at university. I’m not suggesting that fewer women attend university. But we must relinquish our expectations of how women at university should be.
- The increasing prominence of social media. The vast majority of young people use social media extremely frequently. It’s become an essential aspect of keeping in contact with others. But the effects of constant social media use are often awful for women. On photo-based platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, women must maintain the best possible image, which will often be commented upon and compared to others. On text-based platforms, women are pressured to have a regular presence; it is harder for women to disconnect from the online world. To make matters worse, women are more likely to be harassed online. The bullying of female MPs like Diane Abbott or Jess Phillips is horrendous in scale, but it is hardly surprising.
- The decline of traditional gender roles. Our society used to have clearly-defined gender roles, which had a largely religious justification. Men would be the head of the family and the primary breadwinners, and women would look after the household and the children. This was a violation of women’s rights, which had some sort of logic in an overwhelmingly religious society where most jobs required physical strength. In an increasingly secular society with a service-based economy, traditional gender roles are thankfully obsolete. But part of the appeal of religion and traditional morality was that it gave people purpose and certainty. Although the absence of religion has been liberating, many women are simply unsure what to do with their lives. Freedom, however welcome, does not always lead to happiness.
Overall, these five factors amount to a crisis for young women. I do not think this affects all women, or even necessarily most. But life can be considerably harder young women than it ought. To resolve the crisis, we must end any damaging preconceptions of what constitutes womanhood. For the traditional elements in society that remain, it means we cannot expect women to be the best wives and mothers- the roles we used to cherish. However, the progressive left must not propagate the notion of a career-centered life as an ideal. We must be far more open in talking about our personal lives, and those who wish to live an unconventional life, whether in the real or virtual world, must be left alone. And while a strict adherence to a dogmatic view of the sexes is increasingly rare, we must be supportive of those who find the age of social liberalism unnerving and insecure. The modern world can and should be a golden age for women. With a more consistent application of the principles of liberty, we can make it so.