Millennial Women Are "Screwed." So Why Are They Still Optimistic?
By most recent accounts, millennial women are totally screwed. Aside from their massive, dream-killing student loan debt, the rising cost of living, and the near-certain environmental catastrophes of climate change, young women in the United States are faced with a political and economic system that has become significantly less supportive of women since their mothers were in their 20s. Mostly-female fields pay dramatically less than male-dominated fields, ensuring that the gender pay gap isn't going anywhere. Women are still less likely to be world leaders and CEOs. The lack of paid family leave policies stagnates their wages and their career trajectories.
On top of all of that, Donald Trump, a man who has admitted on tape to sexually assaulting women, is the president, even though 63 percent of millennial women voters voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election.
And yet, despite this ominous array of facts, young women haven’t lost hope.
"Everybody became pretty somber," says Kelly Del Valle, 26, about the days after the election. A Chicago-based fertility nurse, Del Valle echoes many other millennial women's memories of that time. “That affected my outlook because it was like, oh, everybody's so bummed out. I'm bummed out.”
But in the year since, she’s noticed a shift in her peers. “It feels like everybody has the same goal in mind lately," she says, "this want to make a better society."
Del Valle is onto something. In the spring of 2017, the Bustle Trends Group, Bustle’s internal research outfit, conducted a survey of over 1,000 millennial women, aimed at understanding more about their goals, fears, and hopes for the future. In the fall, we surveyed another 332 young women. When we stepped back and looked at the results, one set of data continued to jump out at us — only 21 percent of the women surveyed agreed with the statement, "Overall, I am happy,” but 49 percent said they feel optimistic about their futures, despite their present discontent. Their unhappiness isn't surprising, given the odds young women are up against in their day-to-day lives. What is surprising, however, is that 12 months after Trump's swearing in, a full 85 percent of millennial women believe that “the world will be a better place for women 10 years from now.”
The quest for happiness is, of course, part of the human predicament: many of us are never satisfied with what we have, but we are inclined to believe it will be better on some distant day. In the survey responses as well as interviews with several opinionated, hard-working millennial women, we found that many of them tell themselves that familiar story, but a unique version updated for the tumultuous, post-2016-election world we live in now. Their unhappiness is specific to this moment, as is their hope. Combined, these two feelings are creating an unprecedented opportunity for change — and young women are all about seizing it.
Chicago-based therapist Kelley Kitley, LCSW, a women's mental health specialist, sees this disparity between happiness and optimism in her young female clients all the time, noting that for the most part, they are holding out hope. “Maybe in the moment there isn't as much genuine happiness because they're looking externally for something to shift to find that internal happiness,” Kitley tells Bustle. “[They think], If only I get that relationship, then I'll be happier. If only I get that job, I'll be happier. If only I get my own apartment. They're hopeful, but they're not feeling the happiness in the moment, generally speaking.”
It's pretty obvious where the "if onlys" come from: Young women are constantly sold the promise of happiness, and social media has made it almost impossible to avoid this messaging. They are told — by influencers, brands, and fellow users — that a moisturizer will make you glow so brightly, you’ll always feel happy. This trip to Tulum will turn you into a person who does yoga every day. This dating app will help you find your happily-ever-after. All of these messages can create confusion about what happiness really entails.
"I would describe myself as happy, but only because I choose it."
In her 2017 book, The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit Of Happiness, writer Jill Filipovic — a millennial herself — explored the concept of the right to female happiness, especially as it relates to the ideas women are sold about their own fulfillment. Filipovic writes: “The American pursuit of happiness has morphed from a political promise made in the very declaration of our independent nation into a thoroughly capitalist endeavor, packaged and sold to individuals with the promise that if you just get this thing — if you just choose to pay for this thing — you’ll be fulfilled. We are aspirational and pleasure saturated, yet still happiness deficient.”
“I would describe myself as happy, but only because I choose it,” says Loretta Owens, 23, a social worker in New York City who works for a nonprofit serving men in the criminal justice system. For Owens, this sense of not being or having enough came into her life long before Instagram. Her father was incarcerated when she was two years old for drug distribution and not released until she was 10. Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, she was outgoing, driven, and a good student, she says, but “I used to be very pessimistic about who I was and what that meant for my journey in life.” According to Owens, that outlook “came from a lot of internalized self-hatred because of my identity as a black woman and what I was taught that meant, which was loud and ugly and just not worthy of all the things that society taught me that white women were worthy of.”
Growing up with social media didn’t help. “It sounds so dumb to say out loud, but it's very real,” Owens says, "going on Snapchat and feeling like I wasn't doing as many exciting things or I wasn't living as much life as I should be.”
When she was in college and then graduate school, those thoughts were related to academic success — it especially hurt when she saw others at “some fancy conference” — but also to displays of others’ activism. “I wanted to be more involved in activism, especially around the Black Lives Matter movement,” she says, but felt drained by it at the same time. “I grew into this space where I couldn't find the emotional energy to do it anymore. And I sort of felt ashamed because of that. I thought: This is what everyone else is doing. If they can do it, why can't I?”
Kitley says this concern about never doing enough comes up a lot among her young female clients. “Some of what we work on is managing expectations, [and] not comparing themselves to their peers,” she says.
Del Valle, the fertility nurse in Chicago, recognizes her own tendency to feel she’s not enough. Her first job was working full time as a post-op nurse in the cardiac transplant unit of Northwestern Hospital, a role she felt left her with too much downtime. In her off hours she completed a 50-hour training to become a yoga instructor and taught herself to cook.
Del Valle is definitely optimistic — she describes herself as "overly positive" by nature, and her work helping single women and same-sex couples grow their families is inherently hopeful — but she is also always in search of the next thing. Del Valle has begun saving for a house, and she is studying for a master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner. “I am not satisfied with my current state,” she says.
“I feel like, to some degree, we're all scared of becoming our mothers.”
Like Del Valle, Owens also struggles with being satisfied with her output and the impact she is making in her own life, and the world at large. Owens credits her shift out of her relentless self-criticism and self-comparison to the realization that hating herself wasn’t particularly productive. Her work as a social worker also gave her some much-needed perspective. “I realized, activism doesn't have one specific way, or one ideal definition, or example,” she says. “It can become a way of life for people even in the work that they do. So for me, my activism became my social work: my presence with folks who look like me, that weren't given an equal opportunity to ... live the lives that they wanted to live.”
She says that getting off of Snapchat and taking an Instagram hiatus helped. Instead of trying to look happy on social media, she's actively engaged in activities that actually stand to make her happy, whether that's helping a client find decent housing or watching an hour of Oprah. “I’m recently getting into Eckhart Tolle,” she says, after seeing the spiritual author on Super Soul Sunday recently. “I think he’s really dope.”
It’s clear that millennial women want something different than the version of fulfillment sold to previous generations of women. When they look at their mothers, or even their older Generation X sisters, they see hard work and sacrifice, but not the kind of personal or professional satisfaction they hope to achieve in their own lives. While 75 percent of women in our November 2017 survey reported that they believe they will be more financially successful than their mothers, they still expect to be responsible for an unequal share of domestic and emotional labor at home. And they know — from watching their mothers do it — just how challenging juggling family, work, and personal responsibilities and demands can be.
Olivia Arguinzoni’s parents separated when she was 11, but she can still recall how much more work her mother did around the house than her father. While they both had full-time jobs, her parents — Puerto Rican immigrants — followed starkly different paths. Her father went to business school, and her mother pieced together secretarial work while taking care of the family. Eventually, the year after Arguinzoni graduated from college, her mother was able to graduate from college, too.
That said, a college degree was not a panacea. Her father, who holds a union job with the Department of Sanitation in New York City, earns a substantial salary and is able to save for retirement. Arguinzoni’s mother, on the other hand, still struggles to keep up with all the housework and the bills. Arguinzoni points out that there are all sorts of factors at play here. For one, her father “looks more white,” and his family is more assimilated to American culture. (“He never even learned how to speak Spanish,” she says.) But, she contends, the gender expectations placed on her mother from such a young age really made the biggest impact in terms of her happiness.
Regardless of how educated and independent she is, Arguinzoni, now 28, worries that this could turn out to be her story, too. What makes her unhappy is the fear of being unhappy in an inescapable, historically female way.
"We're not given equal opportunities to experience what happiness is."
“I'm just afraid of making the same mistakes that I've seen a lot of women in my family make,” she tells Bustle. “Settling, being so overworked and tired that you're not even able to fight for what you want in your life. That's really scary for me.”
Arguinzoni says her peers share her fears. “I feel like, to some degree, we're all scared of becoming our mothers. Everyone in my friend group can probably say that,” she says. “We admire our mothers, and they're probably our heroes, but to some degree, we're probably like, But I don't want to make the same mistakes that she did.”
In their written Bustle survey responses, many women shared an equally critical take on their mother’s overall happiness. “She sacrificed her dreams to care for my sister and I,” wrote one woman. “I plan on following her example, but finding a balance.”
As much as they judge the paths taken by their older female relatives, the women we surveyed and spoke to noted that there wasn’t a lot of choice in their mothers’ lives.
“For many women, social and political inequality short-circuits the basics,” Filipovic tells Bustle. “Single women are more likely to be poor than single men, especially if they're parents, and older women face higher rates of poverty as well.” These stats are even higher for women of color.
Even in its most basic form, the opportunity to work and attain financial freedom is an essential component of establishing one's identity, and there's an obvious correlation between happiness and independence that is too often withheld from women. “Women are also less likely to work outside the home than men,” Filipovic says, “even though working for pay, even in jobs that aren't professionalized, brings both men and women increased happiness.”
This point is not lost on young women — but having a job isn't enough for them. They want respect and the freedom to be happy, too. “We're not given equal opportunities to experience what happiness is,” says Owens, whose mother worked as an office manager and raised her solo while her father was in prison. “We're always fighting to be heard, or to be seen, or to be paid as much, or to not be catcalled on the street, you know? We fight literally for our safety half the time. When you're … continually having to be vigilant, happiness is not the first thing. Think about the hierarchy of needs.”
Happiness, Owens contends, is “a luxury” that women, for too long, have not been able to afford.
It’s no wonder so many young women report being unhappy. They’re totally sick of this sh*t.
Given their awareness of their mother's struggles and determination not to relive them, it's unsurprising that the women we spoke to for this story, as well as the majority of women Bustle surveyed, reported wanting a better future for women. Seventy-three percent of women surveyed this spring said they hope that 10 years from now, the biggest change to society is that women are treated equally in every aspect of life, including pay.
In the minds of many young women, the biggest barrier to that hope being realized is, you guessed it, the current presidential administration. Lots of the women Bustle surveyed this fall pointed not so subtly to Trump as the main thing holding them back. “Progress can't happen if the people leading the country refuse to believe that women are people,” wrote one survey taker.
“You don't have too look far to know that poor treatment of women does nothing but harm society overall," says Katie Francis, 26, a Yale-educated nurse practitioner who works in central Connecticut and specializes in women’s health. For Francis, Trump’s victory six months before she got her master’s in nursing brought up a slew of concerns for her clients, who she says are women (and men) from a wide variety of backgrounds.
“When Trump was elected, obviously myself and my classmates and my peers were very concerned,” she tells Bustle. “Immediately what came up was the allegations against him and what it will it mean for survivors to live in a country governed by someone who has been accused of sexual assault... And then of course all the other healthcare things that go along with it. So, immediate threats to the Affordable Care Act.”
"If anyone had told us that two months after the election we would all be together in the streets, singing, dancing, chanting in a place of joy and unity, I think we all would've thought they were nuts."
A year later, Francis is still concerned. Ensuring that women have access to care has become more difficult, especially as the Trump administration continues to threaten the ACA and access to reproductive healthcare. But Francis says that has just made her and other providers more steadfast in their commitment to help women. “Ultimately, it is not gonna stop anyone from giving the care that they want to give,“ she says. “It certainly has put a fire in my belly.”
What no one expected was for that fire to spread so quickly. After the 2016 election, many young women looked around with suspicion at the men (and a lot of white women) in their lives who voted for Trump and wondered if the future they had planned on having (and were told by their parents was possible), was — like a selfie with too many filters — a total lie. Why are men allowed to choose how they spend their lives, while women are still in a position of compromise and self-sacrifice? Why was an inexperienced misogynist elected president, and not a competent, highly-qualified woman? It’s no wonder so many young women report being unhappy. They’re totally sick of this sh*t.
“When we recognize that we live in a sexist society and that there's very little we as individuals can do to totally upend things, that can be depressing,” Filipovic says. “But on the other hand, the drive so many women seem to have tapped into post-election — even if it's fueled by rage — is giving a lot of us a greater sense of value and purpose and, funnily enough, confidence to put ourselves into leadership positions, to speak up, and to refuse to back down.”
The ways women manifested that drive in 2017 were, by any measure, stunning. In the year since Trump’s inauguration, young women showed their strength first at the Women’s March on January 21, but then at protests against Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban” and the GOP’s threats to repeal the Affordable Care Act and multiple other purpose-driven protests throughout the country. Sarah Sophie Flicker, a writer, activist, and mother of three who was one of the Women’s March’s founding organizers, tells Bustle, “If anyone had told us that two months after the election we would all be together in the streets, singing, dancing, chanting in a place of joy and unity, I think we all would've thought they were nuts.”
Like 33-year-old Danica Roem, who became the first openly transgender woman elected as a state legislator (in Virginia, no less), young women also became increasingly motivated to enter politics themselves. According to EMILY’s List, a pro-choice political action group, over half of the 20,000 women who reached out to them about running for office after the 2016 election were under the age of 45. “We may have lost the first woman in the White House, we may have momentarily lost our country, but wow, there is a whole army or cabal of women leadership that has grown out of this election,” Flicker says.
Women have never lived in a world that actually feels hospitable to them. The discovery of that basic sensation is the source of both their discontent — how is this only happening now? — and their optimism — we are so, so close.
It happened in entertainment, too. 2017 was the year 25-year-old Cardi B became the first female solo rapper to land the number one spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 list in almost 20 years (with her ode to female financial success, “Bodak Yellow”). Wonder Woman, a female-directed action film about a female superhero, actually got the box office response it deserved. Finally, it seemed, women’s ability to kick ass wasn’t in question. And then there was #metoo, a movement that stands as the most tangible proof that a new future — one led by women demanding change — is actually possible. What started as an outing of the alleged crimes of the powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has led to previously untouchable men in every industry being called out and forced to resign for their mistreatment of women. To be clear, #metoo was absolutely a response to the election of a man who brags about “grab[bing] them by the pussy” on tape (and then later disputes the legitimacy of said tape), but also to a culture that has put up with this behavior — and silenced the women subjected to it — since forever.
“This is not feminism as we’ve known it in its contemporary rebirth — packaged into think pieces or nonprofits or Eve Ensler plays or Beyoncé VMA performances. That stuff has its place and is necessary in its own way,” Rebecca Traister wrote in her November 2017 New York article on the aftermath of the Weinstein allegations, “Your Reckoning. And Mine.” “This is different. This is ’70s-style, organic, mass, radical rage, exploding in unpredictable directions.”
"I didn't know that all of those women would be coming out and standing in solidarity together. I wish that we could have always done this.”
Because they have never seen anything like it in their lifetimes, some young women still have trouble grasping the ferocity and speed at which this change is happening. ("That I think was one of the greatest surprises that I've ever had,” Owens says.) Women have never lived in a world that actually feels hospitable to them. The discovery of that basic sensation is the source of both their discontent — how is this only happening now? — and their optimism — we are so, so close.
With this sudden shift in the culture comes a new anxiety: If young women miss this opportunity to create real, lasting change, they might not get another one. Del Valle says her biggest fear for the future is “that all we're doing won't be enough ... and everything will be back to where it was.”
In the last 12 months, young women haven’t just tapped into their rage, they’ve shown their determination to deliver on it. Our surveys yielded striking data on their drive and commitment: 81 percent say they try hard to improve themselves; 59 percent of them plan on volunteering or doing more charitable work; 49 percent believe their generation is more socially conscious than other generations; 90 percent report they are open-minded about other people’s beliefs; and over 50 percent of them want to be activists in the future.
“When I hear people say things about the bad rep that millennials have, that they're lazy, or any of those types of things, it's like ‘no,’” Kitley says. “I really think that there's a component of togetherness and feeling drive and passion, and that's really exciting.”
Owens is invigorated by a new collective sense of awareness about the realities of injustice in the United States, and the increased engagement it’s inspired. “I don't know if we were going to wake up and see all of the injustices that are going on if it wasn't for [Trump’s] election, if it wasn't for all the people who have been hiding out … to finally come out and be bold about their hatred,” she says. She began to see it as an opportunity, which in turn brought on “a weird wave of hopefulness.”
Just as Owens describes, many other women, including Del Valle and Arguinzoni, experienced the election as a much-needed wakeup call. “I guess I was living in my bubble for a while,” Del Valle says. “[The election] did wake me up to the presence of injustice in a lot of communities. It's caused me to want to fight for those injustices and stand up for those people.”
“If I’m going to be optimistic," she continues, "then I need to actually fight for what I want my future to look like.”
The last year has also taught young women the importance of participating in every part of the process. “I voted in my first city election this past November,” Arguinzoni says. “I hadn't done that before. [In the past] I would only vote in the main elections.”
"Hopefully I will be a woman in politics, like a senator ... I will have wild stories of political protests and love and rage."
For her part, Owens will be attending the Women’s March this year. She skipped last year because, like many black women, she didn’t think mainstream feminism represented her. Then she saw Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory at the forefront, and she changed her mind. “Black and brown women are there, and they're present," she says. "I didn't know that all of those women would be coming out and standing in solidarity together. I wish that we could have always done this.”
But Owens and her peers are doing it now. “There are so many of us who are so motivated to make our country and our world better, and so many who are newly radicalized or at least awakened,” Filipovic says. “It will [only] get better from here.”
The real test of the power of young women’s unhappiness and their optimism will come on November 6, 2018 — an election day that will see more women on the ballot, and likely at the polls, than any election day in history. But this newfound generation of optimists is taking their hope even farther than November — they are dreaming long-term, which, in these difficult times, is perhaps the most radical act of all. The strongest evidence of millennial women’s optimism may not be their hope for the near future, or even the next 10 years, but their visions of themselves when they are much, much older.
For our November survey, we asked survey-takers to describe a day in the life of their 70-year-old selves. While a few of the responses were dreary, most respondents were cheerful about who they will be as seniors. Even more encouraging, their visions of their older selves were consistent with who they hope to be in the very near term. They want to be happy, and they want to make a difference in the lives of others. While much about their futures is uncertain, those two goals remain constant.
“As a 70-year-old woman, I hope to be able to look back on the empire I built, the lives that I've touched, and the family (both blood and not) that I have, and see a successfully happy life. Ideally I'll still be tottering around on my own, helping my community and inspiring young people to follow their own path to success,” writes one Bustle survey-taker.
“Hopefully I will be a woman in politics, like a senator. I will have had 50 plus years of experience in public health and human service[s],” writes another, describing what she wants to be able to tell her grandchildren about her youth. "I will have wild stories of political protests and love and rage.”
At this point, their resilience is not just about surviving day-to-day themselves — they're working every day to make sure the next generation of young women has access to all the happiness they deserve. "Even my discouraged friends are not ready to throw in the towel," Francis says. "Everyone is in the game at this point." It seems millennial women are all in agreement here: Being screwed is no longer an option.