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Marcus Buckingham

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What's Happening To Women's Happiness?

Posted: 09/17/09 09:20 AM ET

Imagine it is 1969 and we're in a thriving American city. Let's choose Detroit. The '60s were good to the Motor City, and the future would have looked bright as new chrome. Now, imagine stopping a working woman on Detroit's Woodward Avenue, perhaps a young bank clerk, and asking if she would cast her mind forward, decades into the future. Not to picture the flying cars and space-themed restaurants that always seem to pop up in visions of the future, but to think about the role of women at work, in business, in government, in life. What do you think she would have said?

1969 was an intense, rousing time for women in America. Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique a few years earlier, and had founded the National Organization for Women in 1966. And Gloria Steinem had just published the essay in New York Magazine that clearly separated the modern Women's Movement from other oppressed groups, "After Black Power: Women's Liberation," in which she called for meaningful work, equal pay, and the goal for all women to be freed from the role of only "servicing men and their children."

Fast forward 40 years: no matter how optimistic the guesses of our "woman-on-a-Detroit-street," I bet they wouldn't have outstripped what's actually happened.


Women rising

I doubt she would have guessed that by the early twenty-first century, women would be running the governments of countries as powerful and widespread as Germany and Ireland, Bangladesh and New Zealand, Chile, Mozambique, and Jamaica. Or that the wife of one U.S. president would spend months in 2008 as the national favorite to become president herself and, barely failing in that quest, would become an outspoken Secretary of State, or that the Speaker of the House would be a woman, or that John McCain would choose a moose-hunting, helicopter-riding, crowd-pleasing mother of five as his running mate because she'd stared down oil companies as governor of the tough state of Alaska.

How about education? I'm sure she would have forecast that more women would be completing high school and attending college, but do you think she'd have predicted that during the 2008 school year, 59 percent of all the bachelor's degrees and 61 percent of all the master's degrees would be earned by women, not by men? Or that by 2009, four out of the eight Ivy League universities--Harvard, Brown, Penn and Princeton--would have female presidents?

And work? Again, she would probably have bet that, in the future, more women would be working, but would she have guessed that October will be the first month in which women outnumber men in the workforce, that women would be holding more management and supervisory positions than men, by a margin of 37 percent to 31 percent, that in like-for-like work women and men with the same amount of work experience would be earning the same, and that women's pay would actually be increasing faster than men's? I doubt it.

Yet the biggest surprise would have come if you had asked her just one more question. Given all the evidence of women running corporations and universities, hospitals, media empires, branches of government, army divisions, and countries, do you think women in the future will be happier?

Of course they will be happier, she would have said. With all these opportunities and achievements, how could they not be?

Well, as it turns out, too easily.


Happiness lost

Each year since 1972, the United States General Social Survey has asked men and women: "How happy are you, on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being very happy, and 1 being not too happy?" This survey includes a representative sample of men and women of all ages, education levels, income levels, and marital status--1,500 per year for a total of almost 50,000 individuals thus far--and so it gives us a most reliable picture of what's happened to men's and women's happiness over the last few decades.

As you can imagine, a survey this massive generates a multitude of findings, (see the full report by Wharton Professors Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers) but here are the two most important discoveries.

First, since 1972, women's overall level of happiness has dropped, both relative to where they were forty years ago, and relative to men. You find this drop in happiness in women regardless of whether they have kids, how many kids they have, how much money they make, how healthy they are, what job they hold, whether they are married, single or divorced, how old they are, or what race they are. (The one and only exception: African-American women are now slightly happier than they were back in 1972, although they remain less happy than African American men.)

If you are a visual learner, this is what the graph looks like: Your browser may not support display of this image.


Figure 1 - Average happiness index value for the period 1972-2006
Source: Based on responses to question 157 of the General Social Surveys


Sad all over

And, in case you're wondering, this finding is neither unique to this one study, nor is it unique to the United States. In the last couple of years, the results from six major studies of happiness have been released:

* the United States General Social Survey (46,000 people, between 1972-2007),
* the Virginia Slims Survey of American Women (26,000 people, between 1972-2000),
* the Monitoring the Future survey (430,000 U.S. twelfth graders, between 1976-2005),
* the British Household Panel Study (121,000 people, between 1991-2004),
* the Eurobarometer analysis (636,000 people, between 1973-2002, covering fifteen countries),
* and the International Social Survey Program (97,462 people, between 1991-2001, covering thirty-five developed countries.)


All told, more than 1.3 million men and women have been surveyed over the last 40 years, both here in the U.S. and in developed countries around the world. Wherever researchers have been able to collect reliable data on happiness, the finding is always the same: greater educational, political, and employment opportunities have corresponded to decreases in life happiness for women, as compared to men.

It feels strange to write that sentence, as though I'm mistyping or having a "backwards day," as my daughter would say. But I'm not. Though the trends in the data certainly don't suggest that all women are less happy as compared to men than they were back in 1972, the fact is that, across more than a million people, the trends are there, and they are going in the opposite direction than most would have predicted. And the sizes of these trends are meaningful. According to Stevenson and Wolfers, if you assume a strong link between being unhappy and being unemployed (which there is--the longer you're out of work, the more depressed you become,) the decline in women's happiness is as if women's unemployment has risen from 10% to 18%.


Happy girl to sadder woman

The second discovery is, this: though women begin their lives more fulfilled than men, as they age, they gradually become less happy. Men, in contrast, get happier as they get older. (These findings are drawn from the work of Professors Richard Easterlin and Anke Plagnol, who took the same U.S. General Social Survey data and sliced it in a different way. You can find their working paper here).

Here's their graph:



Slip-sliding away

This creeping unhappiness can seep into all aspects of a woman's life. When the researchers asked more specific questions, such as, "How satisfied are you with your marriage?" and "How satisfied are you with the things you own?" and "How satisfied are you with your finances?" the pattern was always the same: women begin their life more satisfied than men, and wind up less satisfied. Sure, the crossover points vary a little--women's happiness with their marriage sinks below men's at age thirty-nine; their satisfaction with their finances dips at age forty-one; and by forty-four, they're more dissatisfied than men with stuff they own.

But overall, the trajectory is consistent, and consistently downhill. As you can see from the graph, by the time women reach age forty-seven, they are, overall, less happy with their life than men, and the trend continues on down from there.

Of course, this doesn't mean that every individual woman becomes less happy than every individual man--we've all got our own stuff going on, and man or woman, some days we're in a happy purple haze, some days we've got the blues, and some days we even succumb to the "mean reds," as Holly Golightly called them.

Nor does it mean that this darkening outlook on life is necessarily going to afflict you. You are a unique human being, blessed with the freedom to make your own choices, and so it's completely within your power to choose a life, and a perspective on life, that becomes more fulfilling as you get older, not less. However, right now, the two trends we see in the data are real and telling:

1. Over the last few decades, women, in comparison to men, have become less happy with their lives.

2. As women get older, they get sadder.


Running for the shelter of a mother's little helper...

Looking beyond pure survey data, the World Health Organization can track what this increase in stress does to a woman's mental health. According to their most recent analysis, depression is the second most debilitating disease for women (heart disease is first), while for men depression clocks in at number ten. As a result, women choose to medicate themselves with anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication twice as much as men do. Never one to miss an opportunity, the big pharmaceutical companies nurse this need by targeting two-thirds of all advertising of these medications explicitly toward women.

`"Hey," you might say. "Life's tough. Deal with it." And of course, you'd be right. Life is not designed with anyone's happiness in mind, and it has the disconcerting habit of not rewarding the good as much as we'd expect, of punishing the wicked less vigorously than we'd like, and even, on occasion, of getting the two completely mixed up.

Even so, only the most wasted of cynics would deny that something's got to give. Not only is this "tough life" significantly tougher on women than it is on men, but the advances of the last 40 years were supposed to have changed things for the better. And not just for womankind, but for each individual woman. The hard-won rights, opportunities, and advantages were supposed to have netted women more than just another burdensome role to play--"you at work." They were supposed to have fostered in each woman feelings of fulfillment and happiness, and even, for the special few, the sustained thrill of living of an authentic life.

This hasn't happened. Over the last 40 years or so, life is not trending toward more fulfillment for women; life is, in most ways we can measure, becoming more draining instead. To use Thomas Jefferson's words, though women now have the liberty to choose whichever life they'd like, many are struggling in their pursuit of a happy life.


What's goin' on?

Why? What is causing these trends (and what can we all do to reverse them?)

Some of the more obvious explanations are weaker than you might think:

For example, these trends are not caused by women working longer hours than men. We know this because women don't work more hours than men. In a mammoth study of twenty-five countries, ranging from the U.S. to France to Slovenia to Madagascar, men and women were asked to keep track of what they were doing at various times during the day, and then the hours for each activity were calculated. The results: in developed countries, men average 5.2 hours of paid work a day, and 2.7 hours of homework, for a total of 7.9 hours a day; and women average 3.4 hours of paid work, and 4.5 hours of homework, for a total of, yes, 7.9 hours a day. These averages are statistically identical in virtually every developed country in the study: women and men work the same number of total hours in a day. (It is only in less developed countries such as South Africa or Benin, where women have fewer choices and are largely excluded from the workplace, that women actually work more hours per day than men.)

Nor are they caused by gender-based stereotyping. Sure, forty years ago such stereotyping was still dominant--in 1977 74% of men agreed with the statement "Men should be the primary breadwinner and women should be the primary caretaker of home and family." Today, however, that number has fallen to only 42%--which happens to be almost exactly the same as the percentage of women who agree with it (39%). Your opinion of which roles are most appropriate for men and women to play is not now determined by your sex.

Nor, surprisingly, is it caused by women bearing a disproportionate burden of the workload at home, the 'second-shift' as some have labeled it. This explanation falls not because women don't do more cooking, cleaning and child-caring than men; they still do. It falls because when it comes to the sharing of 'home' duties, the trend lines are all moving in the direction you would predict would lead to greater happiness and less stress for women: namely toward greater parity. For example, between 1975 and today women's housework hours declined from twenty-one per week to seventeen, while men's jumped from six to thirteen. In 1977 dads with non-teen kids spent 2 hours with them on an average weekday, while moms spent 3.8 hours. Today moms still spend 3.8 hours, while dads' kid-time has climbed to 3 hours per week day--and if you are a Gen Y dad, you're all the way up to 4.3 hours per day (Gen Y dads actually spend more time with their non-teen kids than do Gen X moms.)

So if it's not the hours, or the attitudes, and if the inequality of home-work is fast disappearing, where does that leave us?

Male mid-life crisis? A youth obsessed culture that is harder on women than men? The hormonal fluctuations of menopause?

My own analysis leads me to a specific explanation and accompanying prescription--which I'll share next week and which I've written about in Find Your Strongest Life.

But I'd love to hear yours. What's your explanation for, to borrow the title of Stevenson and Wolfers' paper, "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness"?

***
Marcus Buckingham is the bestselling author of five books, with more than 3.7 million copies in print, and the world's leading expert in personal strengths. An internationally renowned consultant and the founder of TMBC, a management consulting company, he has been hailed as a visionary by corporations such as Toyota, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and Disney. Buckingham has been featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Larry King Live," "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," and "The View," and profiled in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Fortune, Fast Company, and Harvard Business Review. A Senior Researcher at Gallup Organization for nearly two decades, Buckingham addresses more than 250,000 people in live audiences each year and leads management training initiatives in organizations worldwide. His most recent book is Find Your Strongest Life (Thomas Nelson).