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Why Are Young Women Prioritizing Successful Careers More Than Young Men?

According to new data, 66 percent of women ages 18 to 34 cite career as a top life priority, compared to 59 percent of men in that age bracket. Young men and women hardly seem surprised by these numbers.

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While Ann Romney makes headlines for being a housewife, new data from the Pew Research Center reveals young women aren't so interested in emulating her. We're more interested in having successful careers than young men, and the stats suggest a significant attitudinal shift from 15 years ago.

• 66 percent of young women ages 18 to 34 say career is a top life priority, compared to the 56 percent of women who said that in 1997.

• 59 percent of young men ages 18 to 34 say career is one of the most important things in their lives, while 15 years ago, 58 percent said so.

Meanwhile, having successful marriages also feels more important to women than men. The stats:

• 37 percent of women ages 18 to 34 cite having a successful marriage as one of the most important things in their lives. This is up 9 percentage points from '97, when just 28% of women said that.

• Only 29 percent of men say having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in life. That number is down from 35 percent in ‘97.

As for parenting, it’s on the top of the life priorities list for both men and women:

• 59% of women ages 18 to 34 said being good parents was one of the most important things in their lives. This is up 17 percent from the 42 percent who said so in 1997.

• 47 percent of men said being good parents was very important to them, up 12 percentage points from 29 percent in ‘97.

In sum: women are more driven at work than men, and more driven at work than they were 15 years ago; while both men and women are more interested in having families, men are less interested in marriage. Could it be that women are more driven at work in a recession when two-income households are necessary to get by? That women are having more trouble recovering from layoffs and feeling more driven about getting back to work? Or that men are feeling deflated after suffering the recession’s worst layoffs?

As a woman between the ages of 18 to 35, I wondered if my peers were more concerned about financial security should they get divorced. After all, while divorce rates may have leveled out from 40 years ago, in the era of reality television and the Internet, pop culture-interested people are bombarded with news about celebrity and reality star divorces — and how messy those can get. Many of us can't help but notice which of the weddings we're going to now are for people whose relationship just won't last. Additionally, plenty of us are or have friends who are the grown children of (oftentimes very messy) divorces.

In surveying friends in the Pew study’s age bracket, I found a range of ideas as to why we think this is happening — but no surprise that it is. One friend in her late 20s, a writer, remarked, “I think it's important to note that women's interest in work doesn't mean they're less interested in having a successful romantic relationship and family life. It just means we have more sources of fulfillment.” She added, “I think it's a great thing, and probably good for marriages too, because it's healthy for partners to have some independence from one another. No one should have to put all their life's eggs in one basket.”

Also, women are more equal to men in the workplace, with the wage gap closing (though women still only earn about 90 percent of what their male counterparts make), and attaining more positions of leadership. So being at work is becoming increasingly fulfilling in those ways for women.

An Asian American friend in her early 30s said she was more career-driven than her partner of nearly a decade (she also has more education). “I look at some of my friends and it's like that too — my good friend works at a bank and is the bigger money maker between her and her boyfriend, who works at a less prestigious bank,” she said. She wonders if this stems from “the immigrant mindset, where our parents were telling us to make something of ourselves, regardless of gender.” She also noticed that this data “reflects children of immigrants after immigration laws were lifted in the 70s, so you're looking at a group of young adults who are first generation Americans, who are pushed to have a better life than their parents.”

A guy in his late 20s with a consulting background couldn’t help but notice the flawed nature of the survey: “Career vs. family is frequently a choice, not concurrent objectives. You can value both, but — at some point — everyone must decide which he/she values most. That, to me, is the more interesting (and difficult) question, and one this study fails to answer.” He was not surprised women are valuing career more, given that more women are attending college than men (as of late 2010, 36 percent of women ages 25 to 29 had bachelor’s degrees, while only 28 percent of men ages 25 to 29 did). “I'm curious to know what men are valuing, if it's not a career or family (at least to the same extent as women),” this friend added. For the record: he said he values career and family greatly.

An economist in her late 20s also questioned the data, specifically the 1997 numbers about marriage since “the sample size is so small and they don’t show their margin of error.” She also noted that “these are just statements about preferences — not actual behaviors.”

And an art director in her mid-30s just thought the data might also suggest that women are more inclined to be perfectionists these days. “I feel like women have been taught that they have to be perfect — the perfect mom, the perfect professional, the perfect lover,” she said. “In ‘97 we weren't required to be hairless [down there], models were still a size four” — instead of a size zero. “And that generation wasn't marketed to the way we are marketed to now. Girls are being bombarded with marketing from birth now. The women of '97 were only entering that reality — they didn't grow up like that.” There were no haul vloggers back then.

We're also constantly exposed to the not so various molds women in pop culture invariably seem to fit into — the plastic surgery-addicted Real Housewife, the naughty scantily clad pop star, the teen actress wearing insanely expensive designer runway clothes on runway carpets when most kids her age are in driver’s ed.

Elle Fanning, now 14, wearing Marchesa in October of last year, when she was 13.

Elle Fanning, now 14, wearing Marchesa in October of last year, when she was 13.

Technology has made these archetypes and everything marketed around them available every to us every time we pick up a cell phone. The idea that we should do and have it all is inescapable from an increasingly young age.

But everyone I bantered with about this study noted that staying at home with the children — which couples are having closer to that 34 age mark than ever before — no longer feels that desirable, even to those who can afford to do it. If we have the opportunity to achieve things in the work place, why not take advantage of it?

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