The new girl power: Why we're living in a young woman's world

A slew of new books laments the prospects of Britain's bright young things. But the new generation has it better than ever argues Alice-Azania Jarvis
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The Independent Online

Youth, eh. Who'd have it? Graduate unemployment, up 25 per cent. One million young people, stuck out of work. 600,000 public-sector jobs headed... well, not to the private sector, that's for sure: they've already warned that they won't be picking up the pieces. And the debt! £23,000 a head, just for a degree. A degree which, as it turns out, doesn't equate to quite the career it once promised. On this, at least, the country is united: my generation of graduates – educated, bright, young people – has been abandoned.

And yet. Why, when I look around my circle of close friends – most of whom, like me, are now 25 – do I struggle to make this fit? Almost without exception, the smiling faces in my graduation photos are still smiling, three years on. They have gone on to find jobs, postgraduate study, and flats (most rented; some owned). What's more, they've done well at those jobs, slowly climbing the ladder of seniority. They are still small fish in big ponds – but they are growing, slowly but surely. None is where they were back then, when those photos were taken.

Is it because they are lucky? A little, perhaps – after all, it may not have been Oxbridge, but we were still graduating from a university most employers have heard of. Are they privileged? Not particularly. Some speak in the rounded vowels of Received Pronunciation, others don't. Some went to private schools, most didn't. No, this close-knit group is neither particularly privileged, nor especially lucky. What it is, though, is female.

When it comes to success – success in the narrowly quantifiable terms of job, house, income – being female is increasingly important. The difference it makes can be seen as early as primary school. Girls now outstrip boys at age seven – when, according to recent government statistics, they overtake at basic maths and literacy. They do it again at GCSE, again at A-level, and again at university. Almost half of all female school-leavers go on to higher education, compared with 37 per cent of young men. When they graduate, most find jobs: just over 10 per cent struggle, in contrast with 20 per cent of men.

Fallyn Campbell is not in my graduation pictures. She studied alongside me – lived alongside me, in fact – but while I was receiving my flaky humanities degree, she was on the other side of campus picking up her chemistry bachelors. Fallyn was the first in her family to go to university. A 5ft 2in firecracker of a thing, she had a passion for dancing, shopping, and the Periodic Table. Growing up in a tiny village in East Ayrshire, she attended Loudoun Academy, the secondary school closest to her house.

"I had a few cousins who had gone off to uni," she recalls. "But aside from that, no one." Her mother worked at the local supermarket and her dad – whose end-of-term collection visits I remember vividly – was a long-haul truck driver. She was, she says, "always a hard worker, always a bit of a teachers' pet". Now she is finishing a PhD in nano-electrochemistry at Oxford and, having turned down the option of a life in academia, is poised to enter into a career in public policy.

I have male friends, too. Some are doing just fine: they have jobs, they've moved out of parents' homes, they are the lucky few. Many, however, aren't. Of those male peers who are succeeding, many appear to have benefited from the arbitrary advantages one might expect. Wealthy parents, posh voices: these are the armbands of the successful young male graduate. Such attributes will boost anybody's prospects, but they are far more heavily depended upon by young men. Indeed, while male graduates are 50 per cent more likely to be unemployed than female ones, the difference is even starker, according to a recent study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), when they come from lower-income backgrounds. The young women who are flourishing are not an economic elite. Quite the opposite: the lower down the income ladder one sits, the more important being female is to one's chance of success. While some well-connected young men might just manage to jump the graduate gap, young women – from all sectors of society – are jumping farther.

"It really is quite extraordinary," says Bahram Bekhradnia, the co-author the Hepi report. "You can see clearly that it is not class-related. There has been a significant improvement in lower social groups' participation at university, but those participating are overwhelmingly women. And the thing is, it isn't just happening in the UK: similar findings are being made all over the world."

It's a theme which has been taken up by David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science. His recent, much-discussed book The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future – and Why They Should Give It Back examines, in part, the way in which our education system has become marked by a gradual lagging of young men – particularly young men from low-income backgrounds. "It looks," he writes, "as if increasing equality between the sexes has meant increasing inequality between the social classes. Feminism has trumped egalitarianism."

Quite what is responsible for the gap opening up between male and female attainment is not clear, however. One line of thought has it that our education system has become "feminised" – both by a glut of female teachers and by the growth of supposedly "female-friendly" course work. This may be true and, indeed, measures are under way to address the situation. This year, for the first time, a new form of "controlled assessment" course work was included in GCSE syllabuses, with plans to roll it out further.

Recent reports suggest, too, that young boys suffer self-doubt. A University of Kent study claimed last week that girls had managed to "convince their male classmates of their (self-believed) superiority" by the age of eight. Although surely, while self-doubt might affect some, misplaced confidence must play its role in others. Lynne Segal is a professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck College and the author of, among other works, Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities. She is less inclined to see the education system as particularly female-friendly; instead, she suggests, it is the male self-image that is the problem. "It's about styles of getting ahead. Feminist ideology has encouraged young women to work; boys don't have an equivalent. Part of what it is to be a young man is about being cool, impressing friends, sharing a joke. They're held back by their own idea of masculinity."

Indeed, a full quarter of male school-leavers genuinely believe that their future lies in sport, television, or music. When I mention this to a male acquaintance who, at 25, still believes the latter, he nods, slowly: "That is, 100 per cent, exactly what has happened to my school friends." He holds down a decent job while he nurtures his dream; the others weren't so lucky. Two realised stardom didn't beckon and abandoned the idea, but three continue, at 26, to live with their parents. With no qualifications to speak of, they struggle though low-wage jobs on the high street.

But what happens when you don't define success in such narrow terms? What happens if, in place of income, living arrangements and career prospects, you start talking happiness, well-being, fulfilment? There too, a divide is apparent. Women, according to the mental health charity Mind, are almost twice as likely to suffer from recorded incidences of anxiety and depression, and nine times more likely to develop an eating disorder. But men, on the other hand, are finding it ever more difficult to cope in the gruelling economic climate – thanks in large part to their tendency not to seek help when it is needed.

"Women have higher social capital in terms of support," says Mind's Marion Kemple. "We've found, with joblessness particularly high amongst young men, that they are developing a host of problems." Young men, she says, identify, whether rightly or wrongly, with the role of the breadwinner. The results, when they are constantly outstripped by young women, can be damaging: "Drink, drugs, violence: these are the coping mechanisms that tend to take hold."

Reared as I was on a robust diet of feminism, it is difficult to feel too much sympathy. Having seen our mothers playing second fiddle to their bread-winning husbands for so long, being forced to join the hand-wringing over Our Troubled Boys feels like rather a raw deal. When I drop my friend Charlotte Coles, a civil servant, a text asking if she is around, she messages me straight back: "Women Rule OK!" Charlotte came top of our (mostly male) politics class at university. A ferocious hard-worker, she would start planning her course work long before most of our peers remembered they had any.

"Growing up, I had the sense that nothing comes without work," she tells me when I remind her of those late-night study sessions. "I felt privileged to be at university. Mum had come from a very working-class background in Leicester. She got into a local grammar and through teacher-training college. She instilled in me the idea that as a woman, you've got to work that little bit harder to get as far – and you should."

Charlotte's mother left school and entered a different world from her daughter. So did my own mother. A doctor's daughter from Essex, she wasn't encouraged to continue her studies since that, as she puts it, was for only "a few very bright girls". As it happens, she was OK, falling into a largely unchosen, though not unsuccessful, career as an actress. But there is no doubt that when I left school, when I left university, I was in a stronger position than she was. My generation of young women, particularly young educated women, are in an infinitely more fortunate position than our predecessors. That, as the nation's commentators join forces to lament youthful decay, is what makes us distinct.

It's when considering this point that another of 2010's great debates rears its head: not "Whither youth?" but "Whodunit?" The answer to that, conventional wisdom dictates, is the post-war generation known as the baby boomers. It's a point hammered home not just by Willetts but by countless other recent breast-beating tomes, including Francis Beckett's What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us?, Neil Boorman's It's All Their Fault, Ed Howker and Shiv Malik's Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth.

No doubt the boomers (and their mobile phone-carrying successors, the yuppies) have much to answer for, but as one of the women who are doing OK in the current climate, I'd say a word in their defence: I wouldn't be where I am without them, and nor would any of the women I know. Perhaps we would be further up the property ladder (though, quite possibly, we wouldn't be – our boyfriends, partners, and husbands would; indeed, Willetts appears to confirm this when he notes the increase in female first-time buyers), but we wouldn't enjoy nearly the same level of autonomy as we do. Autonomy in our professional lives, and in our personal lives. The boomer generation gave us birth control and The Feminine Mystique; they paved our way in education and the jobs market. Before them, the idea of girls outdoing boys at A-level would have sounded like the stuff of science fiction. Whether it would have happened anyway is another question; the fact is, it didn't have to.

The boomers aren't, of course, the only ones to credit for the female surge. With every factor being blamed for male decline, a counterpoint must exist for females, be that a "feminised" education system or a less assured sense of our own destiny. Certainly, as regards confidence, I can tell you this much: a lack of it pervades the being of every young woman I know, and it may well have helped them. And then there are those communication skills – the absence of which Kemple links to male depression. While boys silently play with their PlayStations, what are the girls doing? Chatting, more often than not: on the phone, online, over a magazine. No wonder our language skills are so superior.

Segal points out that, back in the days of the 11-Plus, boys could qualify for grammar school with lower marks than girls, thanks to higher female achievement. What has happened, she says, is that the point at which the playing field levels out has become later and later. "Women used to settle down and have children earlier – that was the big hitch. Now it is happening later, women can achieve more, for longer."

But if young women are powering ahead – in schools, in universities, in the jobs market, even in mental health – what does it mean for the society of tomorrow? Women are on track to dominate the medical profession before the decade is out. Likewise the legal profession and – if university admissions translate into employment – countless other industries. In order to cope, says Bekhradnia, our office culture needs a serious makeover. "We need to look at things like work hours, maternity leave, maternity pay – even childbirth rates," he argues. "And, of course, the question of male alienation: if women are going to continue to outflank men, are they going to be satisfied by their partners' achievements?" Bekhradnia's final point could be profound. If like partners with like, then there is going to be an increasingly ghettoised community of young men suffering the fallout. Isolated and unloved, they may soon be outflanked economically.

Still, let's not get too carried away. World domination remains some way off. More than that: a long way. After all, as Preethi Sundaram of the Fawcett Society is only too keen to point out to me, women still have a veritable assault course of hurdles to overcome – and that's just to achieve parity. "Young women may be out-achieving men in education, but this does not translate into equal pay in the workplace. Women still own less and earn less." She's right: we might beat the boys at maths, but we're still struggling with that glass ceiling. Less than a quarter of MPs are female (so measly a proportion and yet, apparently, a record high); we have just been told we will have to wait another six decades for equal pay; only 11 per cent of FTSE 100 companies boast a woman on their board. To add insult to injury, a lawsuit just launched by the society claims that the Coalition budget violates equality legislation in the burden it places on women.

No, it is still, most definitely, a man's world. The interesting thing will be how that man's world reacts to the jet stream of upwardly mobile young women heading its way. Will it really be another 57 years until pay parity? Can it be? Susie Orbach, the renowned feminist writer and psychotherapist, is unsure. "The fantasy is that women can maintain their position once they have children. That, in our current work culture, is what does it." The key determinant of my generation's future will, it seems, be our ability to reform the workplace. "There is a generation now which doesn't question the nature of work, but that has to change," Orbach argues. "England has proven singularly obtuse, but the current generation of young women are in a better position than any other to change that."

The sooner, then, that Bekhradnia's reforms – the progressive maternity leave, yes, but also the abandonment of our round-the-clock work culture – are introduced, the better. For our sake and for men's. Speaking of whom: what's to become of them? Unless you believe in some supremacist notion of women's inherent superiority (and, though it's tempting, come on), things are bound to work out in the end. With the right kind of help (the meaning of which is, well, a whole other subject) they will, eventually, catch up. After all, if we can do it, why can't they?