The Global Dynamics of Populations: Demographic Trends
Generation X Women on Their Own
the life outlooks of young people at the end of the twentieth century, sociologist Ruth
Sidel interviewed 150 Generation X women when they were in their late teens and early 20s.
She wanted to know what members of this generation thought about family, work, and women's
roles in contemporary society.
that many young women today believe very strongly in the basic tenets of the American
Dream: that with enough hard work they will "make it." As she put it, "They
have bought into the image of a bright future."1
are quite different from those held by young women only two generations ago. Those women,
for the most part, did not perceive themselves as independent individuals with their own
futures and their own needs. Their identities were determined by their ability to satisfy
the needs of others, usually as wives and mothers.
But by the
1970s and 1980s, women for the first time had come to feel that they were entitled to play
roles formerly reserved for men. Women of the baby boomer generation saw no reason they
couldn't contribute to fields like medicine, law, or politics. Most agreed that if they
were ever to gain the same recognition and respect as men, they would have to enter the
male-dominated public sphere, for that is where the real money, power, and status lie.
Generation X women in Sidel's research had a similarly strong commitment to career,
material wealth, success, and independence. One of the common desires of all of the women
interviewed was to be affluent. These dreams were remarkably similar across racial and
ethnic groups, class lines, and levels of education.
young women are the first generation to take for granted that they, like men, deserve
their fair share of the American Dream. Success has become a coveted symbol of identity in
an era of "fragmented family life, insecure, often transient work relationships, and
a vanishing sense of community."2
increasing economic burdens on today's young women limit their ability to fulfill these
expectations. Thus Sidel found lurking behind all these dreams and ambitions an almost
overwhelming sense of despair.
women Sidel interviewed consistently expressed the belief that they are essentially on
their own. They are convinced that if they are to "make it," they will have to
do it by themselves.
On the one
hand, this focus on individualism signals a sense of independence and personal
responsibility among young women, a sign that they have acquired the voice of hearty
American individualism that had long been suppressed.
On the other
hand, Sidel speculates that perhaps today's women have been hoodwinked into believing that
they can do it all, have it all, and be it all. Because of continuing discrimination,
self-sufficiency may not be possible within the current structure of American society.
Clearly the dilemmas facing young women today are as much a function of their times as of
of Sidel's book, Growing Up in the Shadow of the American Dream, has great
significance. The dream looms large for today's women, casting a broad shadow over all
aspects of life. Yet it remains a shadow, something that can be seen but not grasped.
1Sidel, R. 1990. On her own: Growing up in
the shadow of the American Dream. New York: Penguin. p. 18.
2Sidel, R. 1990. On her own: Growing up in
the shadow of the American Dream. New York: Penguin. p. 223.
David Newman and Rebecca Smith.
(Created September 14, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.