Printer Friendly

Schemes and dreams: young Australians imagine their future.


The individualization thesis has become popular among sociologists, arguing that globalization and the risk society have produced a 'new modernity' or a 'second modernity' in which people, particularly the young and the affluent, are encouraged to construct 'do-it-yourself biographies', 'risk biographies', or 'reflexive biographies'. These biographies do not arise because we now live in a more economically equal society, quite the contrary. However, the old affiliations of class and the newer identifications of gender no longer appear relevant as people imagine themselves choosing between different lifestyles, social ties and identities. (1) 'Reflexive biographies' assume that chosen lives 'depend on the decisions of the actor'. (2) The life goal of the 1950s and 1960s--the '"happy" family home, a new car, a good education for their children and a higher standard of living'--are displaced for the hunger for a 'fuller life'. (3)

Biographical projects are often seen as 'as an expression of egoism and narcissism', but the 'focus on self-enlightenment and self-liberation' includes 'the search for new social ties in family, workplace and politics'. (4) Thus the new generation remains committed to the old institutions but in a different relationship. The proof of reflexive biography making will not be demonstrated by young affluent Australians refusing family, workplace and politics. It will be evidenced in the way they discuss these issues, in the gap between describing a happy home, a flood education, a higher standard of living, and work, family and social involvement which are projects of self-creation through negotiated social interaction. Indeed Anne Summers found in her recent focus groups with 90 women in eastern Australia that the young women in particular said life was 'pretty good', being a woman is 'absolutely fabulous', 'it couldn't be better'. (5) 'As a Sydney woman in her late 20s put it: "Women can be individuals now, which they couldn't before".' But: 'A surprising number of women used the word "hard" to describe their lives. Most of them were not talking about financial hardship. Instead, they were referring to the choices they needed to make'. (6)

My research indicates that the more affluent and better educated do indeed imagine biographies that are more self-reflexive, more self-cultivating, and which articulate a more negotiated interaction between the project of the self and that of others. However, and as other researchers have found, (7) there is also a remarkable convergence in stated desires across class lines, so that almost all young women seek travel, education, a career and a family. My findings suggest that almost all young men seek to be materially comfortable, to be good economic providers, to be sexually attractive and to pursue the pleasures of sport and cars. The prospect before us, and a very painful one for the less affluent, is that while young people desire much the same things across class lines, the less advantaged are unlikely to realise their aspirations, producing either resentment or despair. Class differences will remain acute in outcomes if not in desires. Secondly, some young men's and women's narratives overlap, and more so than they would have in the 1970s. However, ongoing significant gender differences suggest flashpoints--such as forms of companionship, balancing two careers, sharing housework and childcare--which will require extensively negotiated interaction to produce compatible projects of the self in families of the future.


My research, sponsored by a large Australian Research Council grant, consists of surveying young people in years 11 or 12 in high schools in South Australia and Western Australia and clients of youth services in South Australia. The data base discussed here considers the life stories of 420 young people in SA and WA (as at November 2004), a little over half of them being female. Following consultation with the sponsoring teacher in the first participating school, the school students were asked to write the story of their lives from the perspective of being 70 or 80 years old. They were prompted with a list of the themes essayists wrote for Anne Summers when she carried out this task among female South Australian school students in 1970: (8)

Imagine you are 70 or 80 years old and reflecting back on your life. Describe your life as you think or imagine it will be. When Anne Summers asked high school girls in 1970 to write this essay, they discussed:

* romance, marriage and children

* paid work or a career

* further education

* travel

* personal crises, for example accidents and deaths to loved ones

* sexual experiences, before, during and after marriage

* world crises or technological changes that would affect their lives.

* For those who worked, they talked about why they chose the jobs or careers that they did. For those who married, they talked about whether or not their marriage was happy and why. For those who talked of having children, they discussed what being a mother meant to them.

But you write your own story! What does life hold in store for you?

In consultation with a youth services worker, the task was adapted to 'My dream--and what is stopping me from getting it' for the youth service clients. Charts 1 and 2 summarise the results.


Chart 1 indicates the now familiar story concerning the upheaval in women's lives wrought by economic, medical and social changes in the 1960s and 1970s, some of them due to the women's movement. (9) Although married women were increasingly returning to work when Summers conducted her analysis of young women's imagined futures, her respondents did not, on the whole, apprehend their future realities. They worked for a few years before finding and marrying 'Mr Right', who often had an occupation and a name. Sometimes husbands were killed off leaving a mourning widow, at least partially comforted with handsome alimony. Where few of Summers' young women went to university or pursued careers, young women in the later generation are much more likely to describe both of these in their future. Some of the occupations that were popular with Summers' essayists remain popular, particularly among the working class government school students: for example, modelling, flight steward, beautician, hairdresser, journalism or working in tourism. However female students at the turn of the twenty-first century imagine careers that were beyond the ken of virtually all girls in 1970. Medicine and law appear somewhat tame alongside: CEO of a fashion conglomerate with her own design label, prime minister, video editor in Los Angeles, soccer player, restaurant chain owner, gangland boss, owner of a string of nightclubs and cafes around the world, police officer, chef, several engineers, including a mineral processer working for a mining company. Even some of the working class respondents had wide horizons, becoming singers, songwriters or film stars. One young woman worked as a nanny overseas, before becoming a crew attendant in the air force and then opening a flying school with her husband.

The love of her life: romance and sex

To my mind, the most intriguing result in chart 1 is that, while young women today might be less preoccupied with motherhood than their mothers, they are more committed to marriage (if only slightly). As Summers (10) says: 'In previous generations, women just had babies--and then had to deal with the consequences'. 'Today, for the first time in history, women can totally control their fertility'. This explains the lower commitment to motherhood. The higher commitment to marriage is a sign of the reflexive biography, of the careful descriptions offered by young women concerning their life partners. Where Summers' female students often identified their husbands by name (28 per cent) and occupation (19 per cent)--and one imagines hair colour and body build--such details were less common for the millennial sample students. (11) Instead, they describe the personality attributes of a man who will envelop a woman in a protective cloak of companionship, respect and equality. Nevertheless, as the following essayist suggests, a man's income earning capacity still matters to some:
   Marriage is the key to my completeness. I won't marry someone who
   I don't love, someone who is abusive mentally/physically, someone
   who is an alcoholic, someone who uses drugs someone who smokes
   etc. I will marry the one I love and trust. It will be someone
   who I can depend on, someone who loves me for who I am and someone
   who I love for who they are. Someone unique and beautiful inside
   and out.... My husband will be a dentist--something that he
   strived for and worried about since he knew what he wanted. I
   will be with him forever, for eternity ... My first sexual
   experience will be with him and it will be memorable ... My last
   sexual experience will be with him (Catholic girls school, SA).

A significant number of young women describe partners who share their occupation or their leisure pursuits, indicating an 'equal' relationship which is explicitly connected with equal parenting in three cases.
   My husband is still with me, although we have separated twice. I
   love him because he respects me and my decisions and understands
   that I am a worker as well as him. We did equal amounts of
   housework and childcare. We share the same interests and the
   same thrill of living life as if it was the last (Protestant
   girls school).

Against some young media feminists' claims that gender differences have disappeared in the younger generation, (12) chart 2 suggests otherwise. Where young women speak of love, romance and sharing as the trope of their partnerships, the young men are more likely to speak of sexual encounters with beautiful women. Some descriptions border on pornography and snuff movies, from the handful of young men who kill off their partners in macabre situations, such as warheads launched by the protagonist's son against his unfaithful wife or when 'the dryer fell on her head'.

The only two characteristics on which young men outflank young women are sex and affluence, the latter at almost twice the rate for young men vis-a-vis young women. Young men are also more preoccupied with sports and cars than are young women, although a small number of young women save up for their first car or extend their high school sporting enthusiasm into a future sporting career. For many young men, sex, sports and cars are embellishments of the untold wealth to which they aspire. As several young men succinctly put it:
   I have been famous and rich. I am still very rich (Catholic
   boys school, SA).

   My main ambition is to be 'more income than Spain rich and
   while I'm young enough to enjoy it' (co-educational Catholic
   school, WA).

For those without a university career ahead of them, football ('Play AFL footy earning one million dollars a year': Protestant boys school SA), and occasionally other sports such as basketball, wrestling and pro bike-riding produce fame and fortune. Wealth was often conspicuously consumed in motor vehicles. Among the working class male respondents, one listed his life story as:
   Married and 3 kids--two boys, 1 girl. Be a mechanic, Travel to
   America. Own Valiant Charger (six pack R/T). House in Balga,
   Play Colts football and AFL. Must own the Valiant Charger R/T
   (working class government school, Perth).

Where female respondents in the same class wrote of shared parenting, their male classmates described lives before women's liberation, married to young, beautiful and, sometimes, rich women who waited on them hand and foot. While the young women are turning 'love at first sight' into mature relationships based on mutual understanding, the young men are more focused on their beautiful, sexy, younger, compliant wives and girlfriends, who are sometimes supermodels or Playmates and/or tennis stars. Thus two young men write as follows:
   I married at thirty, 'a sophisticated, sexy woman with her own
   little business', after six previous lengthy relationships with
   younger (twenty year old) women (Protestant boys school SA).

   Leave school at the end of year 11. Play AFL footy earning one
   million dollars a year. Marry a hot female called Elle McPherson
   2. Have nine children. Divorce her to marry Anna Kornakova
   (Protestant boys school SA).

Wives bring them breakfast in bed, one even reducing his wife to an animal on a lead:
   I am still looking for some emotional stability in my life i.e.,
   someone besides [my wife]. Damm, that woman annoys me. I caught
   her watching the TV the other day, I had to shorten her lead
   (rural Catholic co-educational school SA).

One essayist describes how he and his mate had contests to see who could 'score the most girls in one night. He usually won, but eventually I beat him.' Two had extra-marital affairs, one 'with large amounts of women'; a number are still sexually active in their seventies and eighties, one with the assistance of Viagra.

While young men are having contests to score 'chicks' or shortening their wives' leads, young women experience 'rocky times [in her relationship] but we came through them like the tide' (academically oriented government school, SA). Young women work constantly on their intimacies to grow in themselves and their partnerships. One protagonist contrasts an initial unsuccessful relationship with the maturity of mutual recognition and reconfiguration in her marriage:
   Although I had pretty much planned my career from the start, I
   hadn't put much thought into relationships and families.... The
   engagement was short lived as it became apparent that we had
   different ideas about the direction our lives were heading in.
   Although completely heartbroken I realised that my life was not
   about to fall apart, but rather I had learnt a great lesson in
   love that would in the future help me find the person I would
   finally stay with [she marries]. We had many ups and downs, mainly
   stresses over money and our career paths, but as time went on we
   worked out an arrangement that favoured both our lives. Through the
   younger years of my kids I felt that my partner and I were becoming
   more distant. I think his understanding of our situation was
   different to mine. I think he felt that I loved my kids more than
   him and he was just in the way. This wasn't true at all, it's just
   that to me I felt that the attention children desire was greater
   than my husband's (obviously not true). So at the ripe age of 50 I
   decided that I wanted to go on a holiday to somewhere exotic and
   different with just my husband, so we could reintroduce ourselves
   to each other. When we came back my life became more about our needs
   rather than just mine (academically oriented government school, WA).

Only a handful of young men are self-reflective in this way, although some young men describe themselves as 'romantic' and marry for 'true love' 'a nice girl' or a 'loving' woman.

Work/life collision: hers with his

Summers suggests that young women today know 'exactly what they wanted to do with their lives: "Travelling, then get married, and have a career and then have kids. In that order". (13) This was a 'remarkably common answer' among her eastern states focus group respondents. They wanted some 'freedom' before motherhood and agreed that it was 'too boring' to be a stay at home mum, who 'has no life'. Indeed, many of my essayists understood 'settling down' as being 'struck down with responsibility', delaying this until they had travelled, had 'the fun they deserve', 'lived their life first', started their careers or consolidated their jobs. One suggested that family was a low priority which might eventuate 'if there weren't important other things that had to be done' (academically oriented government school, SA). A few denied their bodies' temptations by remaining single and/or rejecting the path of motherhood with 'annoying kids' and the 'suburban' life of cooking three family meals every day of one's life (academically oriented government school WA, female), leaving 'that to mum'.

However, very few of these young women resolve the collision between career and motherhood with either full-time full-life housewifery or by remaining childfree, or indeed with anything other than a heterosexual life. A handful of young women, from either working class backgrounds or Catholic schools, choose only to marry a rich man and be a housewife:
   I don't mind staying at home with the kids; even if I don't study
   at TAFE or uni, I will be happy to get married to a gorgeous and
   caring guy and have lots of children and do the housework ... I
   kind of like it--it's fun ... the thing that worries me the most
   in life is that I won't get married and have no children (Catholic
   girls school, SA).

But most dance their complicated dreams around equal parenting, taking some time off work or reducing their hours, while a brave few are superwomen who do it all, stitching their family's stretched emotions back together with 'quality time', such as family holidays. The 'superwoman' prize goes to the Protestant school SA protagonist who had four children and still ran her company in Port Douglas: 'hard work, yet I kept busy. I like to keep busy'. Another student's Hollywood film career is completely unaffected by her pregnancy during which she stars in a film about the life of Marilyn Monroe (middle class girls government school, SA). Others resolve the dilemma by running their own practice and so choosing their work hours, hiring a nanny and a housekeeper (rural Catholic co-educational SA); working from home (academically oriented government school WA), or using the childcare centre.

As Table 1 shows, the most popular solution is to stop work for a period and then return to work when the children are older (this could be a few months or sixteen years older). The second most common choice for the female essayists is equal parenting. However, while men now express high approval for sharing housework and childcare, they are not yet putting much labour where their mouths are. (14) As Pocock and Summers found, mothers complained about the failure of male partners to support them at home, some wives so resenting this lack of support that divorce resulted. (15) Table 1 reveals a similar imbalance between young women's and men's desires. While sharing housework and childcare is endorsed by a good number of young women, young men are more likely to favour the breadwinning role, although a handful 'assist', even to the extent of equal parenting or becoming househusbands. Furthermore where 29 per cent of the female essayists address the issue, only 8 per cent of the male essayists do so, so that young women's responses constitute 84 per cent of the discussions.


Gender is not that bent

Young male essayists are distracted by cars, sports, sex with beautiful women. When it comes time to settle down, their wealth allows them to take on the provider's role. Young women focus more attention on romance, motherhood and balancing career with work. The traditional male and female archetypes might be dressed in modern clothes in these young people's essays, and they will be lived differently, but woman the nurturer and man the hunter is not far from the surface of many stories.

Working class dreams outreach structural opportunities

Surveys in the USA, Canada and Australia have found that young people's career aspirations do not match either the present distribution of occupations in the workforce or, for those achieving at lower academic levels, what they can realistically hope for. (16) Many young working class men and women aspiring to as little as a house and a secure job are dreaming beyond the potential of their present course of study. The realities of an increasingly credentialed workforce and increasingly casualised occupational structure will shatter their illusions.

The baby bust

Although almost all young Australian women will be in the paid workforce most of their adult lives, neither the domestic supports nor the institutional supports (affordable childcare, paid maternity leave, job flexibility) that allow them to combine this with motherhood will be there for many of them. (17) Grandparents, unregistered carers, siblings, will be leaned on to make up the deficit. But young women will also postpone the 'hard decision' by delaying childbirth. (18) Indeed, given the number of young women in my study who want three or more children, (19) motherhood delay beyond the fertile years is not the chosen option. Over half of them describe children in their lives. In the face of insufficient social supports, they will self reflexively reconstruct their biographies to 'choose' delay. We need really family friendly policies, such as parenting leave divided straight down the middle: half for him and half for her and non-transferable. The Scandinavian countries still manage to export Nokia mobile phones and Ikea furniture, even though men take time off work to be with young children. We need really flexible working arrangements, not 'flexibility' at the cost of insecure casual work or a working week so long that there are no hours left for the family. Part-time work should be an honourable and real choice available to all employees, whether childfree or parenting, ensured by changing the Sex Discrimination Act to make part-time work a presumed right, against which the employer must be able to demonstrate unreasonable inconvenience. Unless such changes are made, very many of these young people, whatever their socio-economic background, will find their reflexive biographies smashing up against the brick walls of unchanging masculinities, unrewarding economies and unresponsive governments, unless things can be changed in time.


My thanks to the students, parents and teachers in the various participating schools and youth service: Adelaide High School (especially Colleen Tomlian), Christian Brothers College (especially Bob Bowes and the principal, Brother Patrick Cronin), Croydon High School (especially Annie Hanson and Tammy Edwardson), Gepps Cross Girls High School (especially Michael Darley), Marden Open Access College (especially Sharon Morrison), Mitcham Girls High School (especially Susanne Owen), Pembroke College (especially Erica Baker), Prince Alfred College (especially Dr Adrian Brown), St Aloysius College (especially Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Liz Kelton and Neville Stapleton), Wilderness School (especially the Principal, Carolyn Grantskalns), Windsor Gardens Vocational College (especially Angela Falkenberg), Murray Bridge High School (especially Chris Searle), St John's College (especially Mr Charlie Allen and Sharon Rouse) the staff and clients of Inner City Youth Service (especially Karen Waiters), Jill Faulkner, Dorian Marsland, the Youth Services Strategic Manager, and the team leaders at Christies Beach, City and Elizabeth Second Storey Youth Service localities (in particular Dorian Marsland, Youth Services Strategic Manager, Caroline Ninnes and Christine Shetliffe). Kumangka Youth Service (especially Margaret Jackson), Dorian Marsland, and the students in my social sciences class. Western Australian samples were secured largely through contacts provided by my colleagues in Perth (thanks to Helen Temby, Lenore Layman, Kathleen Pepall, Jane Long and Tanya Dalziell), Fremantle Christian Brothers College (Barry Tognolini and Kelly O'Mara), Eastern Goldfields Senior High School (Ingrid Klein and Dan McCormack), Newman College (Christine Roper and Anita Hobbs), Balga High School (Chris Parry), Guildford Grammar School (Barbara Wright), John Curtin College of Arts (Barrie Wells and Phil Allen), Applecross Senior High School (Veronica Lake), the University of Western Australia women's studies students (Jacqueline Van Gent), students participating in the S.M.A.R.T.S. Programme at the University of Western Australia (Tanya Dalziell) and other participating schools that have chosen to remain anonymous. Lara Palombo, Daniela Bogeski and Simon Davey undertook interviews with young people and kept the show on the road during my various absences. I was assisted by Saul Steed and Jenni Rossi's production and management of the SPSS data base, while the whole project would have been impossible without financial support from the Australian Research Council.


(1) Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity Sage: London, 1992. translated by Mark Ritter Beck, p131.

(2) ibid pp 87-88, 99.

(3) Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences London: Sage, 2002. p38.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Anne Summers, The End of Equality: Work, Babies and Women's Choices in 21st Century Australia Sydney: Random House Australia, 2003. pp 12, 22

(6) Summers The End of Equality, pp 27, 23-24.

(7) Shelley Budgeon, Choosing a Self: Young Women and the Individualization of Identity Westport, Connecticut and London: Praeger, 2003. p9; Summers, The End of Equality, p22.

(8) Anne Summers, 'Women's Consciousness of Their Role-Structure', thesis presented in partial fulfilment of B.A. Honours degree in Politics, University of Adelaide, 1970.

(9) See Chilla Bulbeck Living Feminism: The Impact of the Women's Movement on Three Generations of Australian Women Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. p226 and Ann Curthoys 'Doing it for Themselves: The Women's Movement Since 1970' in Kay Saunders and Raymond Evans (eds.) Gender Relations in Australia Sydney: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992. p16 for a discussion of the impact of economic and social changes on the growth of women's liberation in the late 1960s.

(10) Summers, The End of Equality pp33-4.

(11) Only 11 per cent of young women noted their partner's names and only 7 per cent their partner's occupation.

(12) One assertion of equality feminism posed by young media feminists is based on the claim that women are no different from men, no purer, no less capable of violence (Rene Denfeld Kill the Body, the Head will Fall: A Closer Look at Women, Violence, and Aggression London: Vintage, 1997. pp167-8), no more caring (Melissa Benn Madonna and Child: Towards a New Politics of Motherhood London: Jonathon Cape, 1998. p224), no more 'idealistic, empathetic, non-sexist, less driven by ego' (Kate Legge, 'Home and Away', The Australian Magazine 5-6 September 1998). Naomi Wolf (Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How it Will Change the 21st Century New York: Random House, 1993, p.xvii) asserts women 'have the ability to be good or bad, generous or cruel'. Women are 'human beings--sexual, individual, no better or worse than their male counterparts'. Similarly, Natasha Walter (The New Feminism London: Little, Brown and Company, 1998. p184) notes young women report almost as much attachment to violence, hedonism and detachment as young men; they have begun to acquire male arrogance, leadership qualities and tendencies towards dishonesty.

(13) Summers, The End of Equality, pp22-3.

(14) Michael Bittman and Frances Lovejoy 'Domestic Power: Negotiating an Unequal Division of Labour within a Framework of Equality' Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology 29(3) 1993: 302-321, pp304-5; Michael Bittman and Jocelyn Pixley The Double Life of the Family St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1997. pp85-209.

(15) Barbara Pocock, The Work/Life Collision Annandale, Sydney: Federation Press, 2003. p115; Anne Summers, The End of Equality, p28.

(16) Anita Harris Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-first Century Routledge: New York and London, 2004, pp42, 47, 52; Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson, The Ambitious Generation: America's Teenagers, Motivated but Directionless New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999, pp.ix, 3-5.

(17) See also Millicent E Poole and Janice Langan-Fox, Austraslian Women and Careers: Psychological and Contextual Influences over the Life Course Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p130).

(18) As found by Belinda Probert and Fiona Macdonald ('Young Women: Poles of Experience in Work and Parenting' in Dusseldorp Skills Forum (ed.) Australia's Young Adults: The Deepening Divide Dusseldorp Skills Forum: Sydney, 1999, pp140, 150): their surveyed women in pursuit of public relations careers saw motherhood as 'a long way off in the distance' and not one woman was 'giving up work' for motherhood. They 'were very unclear about how they might combine having children with their careers'. Similarly, in another study, 'Most of the women (and men) in our study are not planning in any strict sense for children or indeed for careers. Those who are planning are somewhat unclear about exactly how they are going to go about achieving things they are planning in their personal and professional lives (Rosslyn Reed, Margaret Allen, Tanya Castleman and Darryl Coulthard '"I mean, you want to be there for them": Young Australian professionals negotiating careers in a gendered world' Australian Journal of Labour Economics 6(4), 2003, p531.

(19) Ten per cent identified three, four or more children, up to six or ten in several cases.
Table is projected childcare arrangements

Gender of      Childrearing arrangements                      number

Female         Female continues working                       6
Female         Female stops, usually to return to work later  24
Female         Female works part-time                         8
Female         No children                                    9
Female         Husband stops work
Female         Both partners share equally                    16

Total females                                                 68 (84%)

Male          'assists': unspecified, ranging from stops     5
respondent     work to shares equally
Male           male is breadwinner                            7
Male           Wife stays at home                             1

Total males                                                   13 (16%)
COPYRIGHT 2005 Hecate Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Bulbeck, Chilla
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:May 1, 2005
Previous Article:The smile.
Next Article:A fugitive moment of grace: life story, migration and Vietnamese-Caledonian women.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters