I was recently at dinner with a group of loose acquaintances of a similar age to celebrate the birthday of a woman I had met 10 years earlier at university. She was turning 31. Also at the table were a divorcée, a single woman, a mother, a woman who had been dating her boyfriend for a few months, and a newlywed. The mood was flat.
The divorcée had been dating a new man for two years and didn’t know where it was going. “He doesn’t understand the fertility issues I have. He says he wants a baby, but I try to talk to him about when and he says we don’t have to talk about that yet.”
The single woman had gone to a cafe that morning to have breakfast with a guy she met on a dating app. “He just didn’t show up. I wasn’t even that excited to meet him, but he couldn’t even be bothered showing up. Breakfast was his idea, too. It’s always something. I don’t even really want a boyfriend, but what else should I be doing with my time?”
The mother’s lament was a classic. She had already drunk three glasses of wine to most of the table’s one. “I didn’t appreciate what I had when I had it: the freedom, the lack of direction. I actually just want my lack of structure back. I don’t think I thought enough about what having a child was going to be like.”
The woman with the new boyfriend began talking about work. “I started this job because I thought it was a good opportunity, but now this is my actual job, not just a stepping stone to something else.”
The newlywed described her wedding as an anticlimax. “I had been looking forward to it for so long! And now it’s done, I don’t know what I should look forward to next. My job has become so uninteresting; it feels like everything has become so uninteresting.”
Different miseries, to be sure – so different it was barely a coherent conversation, more a series of monologues. But I had met this group of women a few times over the past year, and they were not like this 12 months ago. Turning 30 had been such a novelty. It was like we were doing it for a laugh: look at us pretending to have a “milestone birthday”, look at us with our gold “30” balloons and our grown-up parties in proper venues, rather than in our backyards. We were parroting what we thought people should say at age 30, with a nod and a wink. In our hearts, however, we weren’t 30. We certainly didn’t feel 30. To us, 30 was a lark.
Really just goes to show you people can be unhappy despite any circumstances that they are in, and the general lie of feminist empowerment: ‘gotta have it all.’
It all goes back to the paradoxical decline of female happiness. Freedom, a job, marriage, or anything else like that cannot make you happy.
At 31, I had been in a great new job for more than a year. I had published my novel 18 months earlier and given birth to my first baby just before that. Yet I had been experiencing a certain kind of tedium for a while.
I had thought my dissatisfaction was perhaps a symptom of my brattiness. There had been no parties in my honour lately, no announcements to make with a satisfied air of self-deprecation (“some personal news”). Intellectually, I knew I was not special, but in my heart I still loved the applause. I wondered if maybe I was experiencing depression for the first time in my life.
Then I thought it was more likely my feet were getting a bit itchy. Entering my 30s, I was a mother, had a great job, had even published a book. What more could I want? But this gnawing feeling continued to grow. Couldn’t I be doing more? Should I have done something different instead? Like become an astronaut? I felt petulant, ungrateful.
But when I finally lifted up my head and looked around, I realised I wasn’t the only one. Surveying people of a similar age revealed I wasn’t just being a brat. Everyone seemed to be struck down with this same malaise. Whether they were my close friends or acquaintances, lived in another hemisphere or had never left the state, every 31-year-old I spoke to seemed to be in a state of ennui.
Even the author who is “very accomplished” feels this way. Betty Frieden’s “the problem that has no name” never goes away no matter what happens. I suppose that’s what happens when you base your identity in external things and accomplishments. It’s all never enough for the voracious appetite of hypergamy.
A new survey of 1,000 American workers by a telecommunications firm found that 93 percent of women consider workplace flirting inappropriate, compared to 27 percent of men who consider it at least sometimes acceptable.
The more interesting story is not told by mere statistics (though one hopes that 27 percent of male flirters will be smart enough to limit their winking and nudging to the 7 percent of women who apparently don’t mind it). It’s what the survey reflects about the changing landscape of interpersonal relationships, and the rapid evolution of sexual mores, which have culminated in a new set of norms that redefines entire categories of human interaction as hopelessly outré.
It’s all a bit whiplash-inducing. After all, it was not very long ago that people not only flirted in the workplace but often dated and married partners with whom they first connected there. The number of folks who met their spouses through work hovered around 20 percent from the 1990s through the early aughts. Back then, online dating was a blip on the radar. It carried the same shameful stigma associated with the newspaper personal ads of old, a last resort for desperate weirdos who couldn’t meet partners the normal way—you know, like at work.
The author’s analysis is actually pretty good. The rise of anonymity through people meeting on the Internet has dispersed many personal potential romantic interactions to the place of the unwanted and uncomfortable for many.
Kate Julian captured this dynamic in a 2018 Atlantic article about millennial sexlessness, when her story of meeting her husband in an elevator was met with deeply ambivalent reactions from the article’s subjects. Even as the young women she spoke to swooned over the idea of such a meet-cute, “quite a few of them suggested that if a random guy started talking to them in an elevator, they would be weirded out. “Creeper! Get away from me,” one woman imagined thinking.
That gut-level revulsion in response to a friendly overture—”Creeper! Ew!”—is partly traceable to the idea that male desire is in and of itself fundamentally predatory, which is in turn traceable to the trend of viewing sex and love through a power-and-privilege lens. The way the thinking goes, if every interaction between men and women must be contextualized against men’s abuse of women historically, as a group, then any man approaching a woman should be rightfully viewed with suspicion; even the most anodyne coffee date comes with an unwanted, non-optional side order of three thousand years of patriarchal oppression. Drink up, ladies!
But today’s horror at last generation’s idea of a meet cute also reflects a bone-deep discomfort among young people with the sort of spontaneous, unscripted interaction that can spark an unexpected connection, like chatting up an attractive stranger in an elevator.
For a generation that prides itself on openness to experience, millennials have remarkably little confidence in their ability to navigate the complicated, confusing, or otherwise ambiguous territory of adult intimate relationships.
The far-reaching impact of the #MeToo movement may be visible here. What started as a well-intentioned attempt to protect women from pervasive harassment and abuse evolved into something more nefarious; young people have been taught to equate emotional discomfort with trauma and violation, and have thus come to believe that the only “good” relationship offers complete safety from ever feeling bad.
Only the 2nd time I’ve ever heard of meet-cute after Scott’s reference to it. I think part of this is due to the changing work cultures because from what I’ve seen and experienced at least this tends to be much less the case when doing hobbies or other functions where it’s a more low key atmosphere. Maybe a business vs pleasure scenario. If you’re expecting to be working or doing business then flirting is out of bounds whereas if you’re chilling at a restaurant or going dancing or something things then people are more open.
This notion of intimacy without the risk of heartbreak goes hand in hand with our present obsession with “consent,” which used to focus on sexual encounters but has since bled over into any and all activities—including flirting or dating—that might eventually lead to sex. If it’s not consensual, the argument goes, it’s abuse.
But it’s also not unusual to see abuse and harassment broadly defined as any behavior that makes the (usually female) subject uncomfortable, even as the list of things that make us uncomfortable keeps expanding to include more and different types of social interaction.
Flirting? Uncomfortable. Jokes? Uncomfortable. Ordering a pizza by phone? No thanks, we’d rather starve.
This is beyond the original notion of harassment as pervasive unwanted attention, the violation of clearly established boundaries; in this new framework, merely inquiring as to the location of the boundaries may render one already out-of-bounds. If saying “no” makes a woman feel awkward, then asking her out, even once, is a violation (and lord help the man who approaches under the mistaken assumption that she’s interested!).
The notion of the “unwanted overture” used to be a question-begger, a running joke at corporate sexual harassment trainings: Until you make the overture, how do you know whether or not it’s “unwanted”? Some might argue that the social web has since solved this problem for us, that a person should simply always assume that the overture is unwanted, unless it’s taking place on a dating app where the subject’s presence implies consent to being approached with romantic intent. The imagined result is a sort of neutered utopia, one where nobody is ever advanced-upon at all, thanks to the assumption that every human in sight is pre-enrolled on the sexual equivalent of the do-not-call list.
The great irony of this is that the people who wanted these things instituted (e.g. feminists and liberals) are typically the very ones crying the most about how men aren’t men anymore and there are no good ones left. Well, the cultural changes pushed the feminization of men and many other consequences that have been discussed on this blog and others… so when you make your bed you have to lie in it. You can’t ‘change the rules’ and expect that the other side continues to play by the same ones.
But while some of our sexual mores are changing as fast as the technology that fuels them, it’s a good bet that the rumors of the death of flirting have been greatly exaggerated, as evinced by the millennial women who swoon at the idea of meeting someone in an elevator—even though, according to the standards of their own generation, this is simply not done. They’re tapped into something deeper than the trendy, fleeting culture that says it’s traumatic to be desired: the human yearning to connect, to bond, to love and be loved.
My prediction: in the culture wars, love wins.
Unfortunately, this is where the author goes sour because she doesn’t know the statistics on increasing lack of marriage and sexlessness. Maybe she’ll start to understand as things continue to worsen.