SYF: The new girl order


The Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle is showing up in unexpected places, with unintended consequences.

After my Lot Airlines flight from New York touched down at Warsaw’s Frédéric Chopin Airport a few months back, I watched a middle-aged passenger rush to embrace a waiting younger woman — clearly her daughter. Like many people on the plane, the older woman wore drab clothing and had the short, square physique of someone familiar with too many potatoes and too much manual labor. Her Poland-based daughter, by contrast, was tall and smartly outfitted in pointy-toed pumps, slim-cut jeans, a cropped jacket revealing a toned midriff (Yoga? Pilates? Or just a low-carb diet?), and a large, brass-studded leather bag, into which she dropped a silver cell phone.

Yes: Carrie Bradshaw is alive and well and living in Warsaw. Well, not just Warsaw. Conceived and raised in the United States, Carrie may still see New York as a spiritual home. But today you can find her in cities across Europe, Asia, and North America. Seek out the trendy shoe stores in Shanghai, Berlin, Singapore, Seoul, and Dublin, and you’ll see crowds of single young females (SYFs) in their twenties and thirties, who spend their hours working their abs and their careers, sipping cocktails, dancing at clubs, and (yawn) talking about relationships. Sex and the City has gone global; the SYF world is now flat.

Is this just the latest example of American cultural imperialism? Or is it the triumph of planetary feminism? Neither. The globalization of the SYF reflects a series of stunning demographic and economic shifts that are pointing much of the world — with important exceptions, including Africa and most of the Middle East — toward a New Girl Order. It’s a man’s world, James Brown always reminded us. But if these trends continue, not so much.

Three demographic facts are at the core of the New Girl Order. First, women — especially, but not only, in the developed world — are getting married and having kids considerably later than ever before. According to the UN’s World Fertility Report, the worldwide median age of marriage for women is up two years, from 21.2 in the 1970s to 23.2 today. In the developed countries, the rise has been considerably steeper — from 22.0 to 26.1.

Demographers get really excited about shifts like these, but in case you don’t get what the big deal is, consider: in 1960, 70% of American 25-year-old women were married with children; in 2000, only 25% of them were. In 1970, just 7.4% of all American 30- to 34-year-olds were unmarried; today, the number is 22%. That change took about a generation to unfold, but in Asia and Eastern Europe the transformation has been much more abrupt. In today’s Hungary, for instance, 30% of women in their early thirties are single, compared with 6% of their mothers’ generation at the same age. In South Korea, 40% of 30-year-olds are single, compared with 14% only 20 years ago.

Nothing-new-under-the-sun skeptics point out, correctly, that marrying at 27 or 28 was once commonplace for women, at least in the United States and parts of northern Europe. The cultural anomaly was the 1950s and 60s, when the average age of marriage for women dipped to 20 — probably because of post-Depression and postwar cocooning. But today’s single 27-year-old has gone global — and even in the West, she differs from her late-marrying great-grandma in fundamental ways that bring us to the second piece of the demographic story. Today’s aspiring middle-class women are gearing up to be part of the paid labor market for most of their adult lives; unlike their ancestral singles, they’re looking for careers, not jobs. And that means they need lots of schooling.

In the newly global economy, good jobs go to those with degrees, and all over the world, young people, particularly women, are enrolling in colleges and universities at unprecedented rates. Between 1960 and 2000, the percentages of 20-, 25-, and 30-year-olds enrolled in school more than doubled in the US, and enrollment in higher education doubled throughout Europe. And the fairer sex makes up an increasing part of the total. The majority of college students are female in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Norway, and Australia, to name only a few of many places, and the gender gap is quickly narrowing in more traditional countries like China, Japan, and South Korea. In a number of European countries, including Denmark, Finland, and France, over half of all women between 20 and 24 are in school. The number of countries where women constitute the majority of graduate students is also growing rapidly.

That educated women are staying single is unsurprising; degreed women have always been more likely to marry late, if they marry at all. But what has demographers taking notice is the sheer transnational numbers of women postponing marriage while they get diplomas and start careers. In the UK, close to a third of 30-year-old college-educated women are unmarried; some demographers predict that 30% of women with university degrees there will remain forever childless. In Spain — not so long ago a culturally Catholic country where a girl’s family would jealously chaperone her until handing her over to a husband at 21 or so — women now constitute 54% of college students, up from 26% in 1970, and the average age of first birth has risen to nearly 30, which appears to be a world record.

Adding to the contemporary SYF’s novelty is the third demographic shift: urbanization. American and northern European women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries might have married at 26, but after a long day in the dairy barn or cotton mill, they didn’t hang out at Studio 54 while looking for Mr. Right (or, as the joke has it, Mr. Right for Now). In the past, women who delayed marriage generally lived with their parents; they also remained part of the family economy, laboring in their parents’ shops or farms, or at the very least, contributing to the family kitty. A lot of today’s bachelorettes, on the other hand, move from their native village or town to Boston or Berlin or Seoul because that’s where the jobs, boys, and bars are — and they spend their earnings on themselves.

By the mid-1990s, in countries as diverse as Canada, France, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, and Russia, women were out-urbanizing men, who still tended to hang around the home village. When they can afford to, these women live alone or with roommates. The Netherlands, for instance, is flush with public housing, some of it reserved for young students and workers, including lots of women. In the United States, the proportion of unmarried twentysomethings living with their parents has declined steadily over the last 100 years, despite sky-high rents and apartment prices. Even in countries where SYFs can’t afford to move out of their parents’ homes, the anonymity and diversity of city life tend to heighten their autonomy. Belgians, notes University of Maryland professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, have coined a term — “hotel families” — to describe the arrangement.

Combine these trends — delayed marriage, expanded higher education and labor-force participation, urbanization — add a global media and some disposable income, and voilà: an international lifestyle is born. One of its defining characteristics is long hours of office work, often in quasi-creative fields like media, fashion, communications, and design — areas in which the number of careers has exploded in the global economy over the past few decades. The lifestyle also means whole new realms of leisure and consumption, often enjoyed with a group of close girlfriends: trendy cafés and bars serving sweetish coffee concoctions and cocktails; fancy boutiques, malls, and emporiums hawking cosmetics, handbags, shoes, and $100-plus buttock-hugging jeans; gyms for toning and male-watching; ski resorts and beach hotels; and, everywhere, the frustrating hunt for a boyfriend and, though it’s an ever more vexing subject, a husband.

The SYF lifestyle first appeared in primitive form in the US during the seventies, after young women started moving into higher education, looking for meaningful work, and delaying marriage. Think of our-SYF Mary Richards, the pre-Jordache career girl played by Mary Tyler Moore, whose dates dropped her off — that same evening, of course — at her apartment door. By the mid-nineties, such propriety was completely passé. Mary had become the vocationally and sexually assertive Carrie Bradshaw, and cities like New York had magically transformed into the young person’s pleasure palace evoked by the hugely popular TV show Sex and the City. At around the same time, women in Asia and in post-Communist Europe began to join the SYF demographic, too. Not surprisingly, they also loved watching themselves, or at least Hollywood versions of themselves, on television. Friends, Ally McBeal, and Sex and the City became global favorites. In repressive places like Singapore and China, which banned SATC, women passed around pirated DVDs.

By the late 1990s, the SYF lifestyle was fully globalized. Indeed, you might think of SYFs as a sociological Starbucks: no matter how exotic the location, there they are, looking and behaving just like the American prototype. They shop for shoes in Kyoto, purses in Shanghai, jeans in Prague, and lip gloss in Singapore; they sip lattes in Dublin, drink cocktails in Chicago, and read lifestyle magazines in Kraków; they go to wine tastings in Boston, speed-dating events in Amsterdam, yoga classes in Paris, and ski resorts outside Tokyo. “At the fashionable Da Capo Café on bustling Kolonaki Square in downtown Athens, Greek professionals in their 30s and early 40s luxuriate over their iced cappuccinos,” a Newsweek International article began last year. “Their favorite topic of conversation is, of course, relationships: men’s reluctance to commit, women’s independence, and when to have children.” Thirty-seven-year-old Eirini Perpovlov, an administrative assistant at Associated Press, “loves her work and gets her social sustenance from her parea, or close-knit group of like-minded friends.”

Sure sounds similar to this July’s Time story about Vicky, “a purposeful, 29-year-old actuary who ... loves nothing better than a party. She and her friends meet so regularly for dinner and at bars that she says she never eats at home anymore. As the pictures on her blog attest, they also throw regular theme parties to mark holidays like Halloween and Christmas, and last year took a holiday to Egypt.” At the restaurant where the reporter interviews them, Vicky’s friends gab about snowboarding, iPods, credit-card rates, and a popular resort off the coast of Thailand. Vicky, whose motto is “work hard, play harder,” is not from New York, London, or even Athens; she’s from the SYF delegation in Beijing, China, a country that appears to be racing from rice paddies to sushi bars in less than a generation — at least for a privileged minority.

With no children or parents to support, and with serious financial hardship a bedtime story told by aging grandparents, SYFs have ignited what The Economist calls the “Bridget Jones economy” — named, of course, after the book and movie heroine who is perhaps the most famous SYF of all. Bridget Jonesers, the magazine says, spend their disposable income “on whatever is fashionable, frivolous, and fun,” manufactured by a bevy of new companies that cater to young women. In 2000, Marian Salzman — then the president of the London-based Intelligence Factory, an arm of Young & Rubicam — said that by the 1990s, “women living alone had come to comprise the strongest consumer bloc in much the same way that yuppies did in the 1980s.” (Read more: in city journal)

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