The Ambition Collision

The Ambition Collision, by Lisa Miller.

What is this midlife crisis among the 30-year-olds I know? Millennial women — at least those who reside in professional bubbles — seem to have it all. They are better educated, more prosperous, less encumbered by cultural expectations than any previous generation of women. They delay marriage (if they marry at all) and children (if they choose to conceive). They can own or rent. They can save or spend. These women have been on familiar terms with their ambitions all their lives — raised by careful parents to aim high (millennial women are likelier than their male peers to have professional jobs, to be managers, and to work in finance), and tutored by their cultural icons to perform their empowerment, and never submit. You know, “Bow down, bitches,” as they say.

So why are the well-employed, ambitious 30-year-olds of my acquaintance feeling so adrift, as discontented as the balding midlife sad sacks whose cliché dissatisfactions made Updike rich?

The women complain of the enervating psychic effects of the professional treadmill as white-collar piecework and describe their dread as they contemplate bleak futures — decade after decade, they imagine, unfulfilled. After a lifetime of saying ‘yes’ to their professional hunger — these are the opportunity-seizers, the list-makers, the ascendant females, weaned on Lean In — they’ve lost it, like a child losing grasp of a helium balloon. Grief-stricken, they are baffled too, for they have always been propelled by their drive. They were the ones who were supposed to run stuff — who as girls imagined themselves leaving the airport in stylish trench coats, hailing a taxi with one hand while holding their cell in the other. …

Limp, desperate, they fantasize about quitting their good jobs and moving home to Michigan. They murmur about purpose, about the concrete satisfactions of baking a loaf of bread or watching a garden grow. One young woman I know dreams about leaving her consulting job, which takes her to Dubai and Prague, to move back home and raise a bunch of kids. …

According to the author, the solution appears to be more feminism, such as getting rid of alleged sexism in the workplace. Still, maybe realism is curbing some of the more strident feminists. Most people, of both sexes, realize by about 35 that jobs ain’t that great.