Chapter 13

The Global Dynamics of Populations: Demographic Trends

Sociologists at Work


Ruth Sidel

Generation X Women on Their Own

To examine 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.

Sidel found 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

Such dreams 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.

The 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.

But today's 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

Yet the 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.

The young 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 their gender.

The subtitle 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.