By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
If you're a woman between the ages of, say, 18 and 30, then chances are good you were raised by a mother who aspired to be an '80s superwoman, a CEO-domestic goddess in shoulder padsand so, minus the shoulder pads, do you. Creative satisfaction, along with money, romance, and gorgeous offspring, is part of our deluxe have-it-all package. And yet, in the years between college and settling down, we run smack into some harsh economic realities that can leave us sounding like women on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
"Just make me sound not too insane," pleaded one woman who reluctantly agreed to talk about her situation.
"I'm in this really hard place and I honestly don't know what to do," said another.
And, "Is this making any sense at all?"
Sometimes we feel like the madwomen in our own attics, and no wonder. "The decisions facing young women are very complex and tough issues," says Dr. Anna Fels, a psychiatrist and author of the recent Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives. "There's no cultural consensus on how to lead your life anymore."
On a limited budget of time and money, we have to somehow prioritize making a living, making our mark, and making a family. As hard as this economy is for young adults in general, it's that much more complicated for women, who not only earn less but want more. Both men and women of this generation are taking on unprecedented debt for their educations, but at 76 cents on the male dollar, women have a harder time working their way into financial stability. They're also more likely to take time out of the labor force, which slows the career climb and drags down earnings.
A study conducted in 2002 by the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement found that more than half the single young women in the United States are living paycheck to paycheck, compared to only 42 percent of single young men.
Often, we run into serious debt while pursuing big dreams.
Lagusta Yearwood, 26, is a chef with her own gourmet-vegetarian meal delivery service, lagustasluscious.com. She has struggled to get the business up and running while paying off about $45,000 in debt from student loans and from living on credit cards while in college and culinary school. "I was an English and women's studies major [at the University of Rochester], and now I'm a cook," she says. "I'm happy I went to college, but if I'd known I would come out with so much debt and wouldn't be making money from my degree, I wouldn't have gone."
Emily, 30, recently quit a long-term freelance job as a photographer for a daily newspaper. "In the newspaper world, men are more aggressive, sometimes at the cost of sensitivity," she says. "I wasn't willing to stick my camera in the face of some woman whose child died three hours ago." She has gone back to more personal and creative workone recent project follows a woman truck driver cross-countrybut she's struggling to pay for health insurance.
Anna, 32, the daughter of Russian immigrants, majored in business at SUNY-Albany to please her family, and has held well-paid consulting jobs for the past 10 years. Finally, last November, she made a change. She was accepted to Columbia's master's program in international affairs, but deferred for a year. "If I leave my job, which I'm making good money in, to go 100K into debt, that's just fiscally a really stupid, stupid decision," she says. Now she's trying to figure out a way to get the degree while working part-time.
A lack of funds, as well as time, is keeping Lisa (not her real name) from finishing her first film, a documentary about the Middle East. She estimates her finished project will cost up to $80,000, and only when it is done will she be able to move on with her chosen career, not to mention family and children. "I really truly want to get married," she says. "I'm 29, I wouldn't mind having my first child at 33, but I want to finish the film before that. That's my first baby."
Marriage has traditionally been the means for women to provide for themselves and their children. Of the dozens of women on the 2004 ForbesRichest People list, nearly all of them made their fortunes through marriage. But few twentysomething women today are counting on a breadwinner.
"I feel like girls are really brought up to imagine their lives with a partner," says Sara, 27, who is getting her MFA in creative writing at Columbia. "I can imagine myself in a long-term relationship but not in a way that has any impact on the way I think about my economic life."
For those who want a partner and childrenand that's by no means a universal desirethere is a clear push to establish your own career and identity first. Meanwhile, the detested biological clock is running. The average age of first-time moms edged up almost four years between 1970 and 2000, from 21 to 25, driven by a rise in births to thirty- and fortysomethings. Since the mid 1970s there has been a fourfold increase in the percent of first births to women 30 years and older.