When we’re racing through life, it can be hard to step back and see the assumptions and structures that we’re basing our lives on.
If we did, we could see that as millennials, the beliefs we have about our time on the planet, our careers, having families, buying property and how we manage our finances are largely inherited and socialised.
And these assumptions are upheld by the structures we live in — government policies, workplaces, economy, and education systems, etc.
Some of the strongest assumptions and structures are around ‘the family’, with ‘the family’ put on a pedestal. Living as an individual or couple without kids (by choice or necessity) or in some other ‘less traditional’ way, comes off as ‘second best’.
But, what if we’re not, or aren't planning to be, a family?
For millennials, the assumptions and the structures that put ‘the family’ first can impact how we plan our futures, out finances, and most importantly, our happiness.
Remember when we mapped out a classic roadmap for life in What if we lived forever? We said:
“...You sort your shit out in your 30s, hit ‘parent mode’ in your 40s, and in your 50s you think about ‘winding down’.”
It’s loaded with expectations about meeting ‘the one’, getting married, buying a house, having babies and then spending the rest of our lives putting our kids first.
This just doesn’t work anymore, thanks to the extensive time we have on the planet, the agency we have to change, and the access we have to resources — capital, knowledge and social.
But these beliefs cause millennials plenty of angst when they’re not fitting the mould.
Structures that favour the family
The structural biases supporting these ideas are strong in government and policies.
In the 2019 federal election campaign, rhetoric about the family has been rampant on all sides of the game — whether it’s to do with tax breaks, super, women's working situations, childcare, or education.
Government policies don’t seem to be recognising that the birth rate in Australia and other Western countries is going down. 2017 ABS data showed the total fertility rate in Australia was 1.74 babies per woman, clearly declining since an unusual high of 2.02 in 2008. But the economic assumption underlying policies for both major parties seems to be that it will go up.
Workplace structures back the traditional family, with many companies offering paid parental leave on top of the Government’s benefit, and flexible time for parents.
In talking to individuals and couples without kids, I hear resentment that they’re expected to stay back while people with kids leave on time. They have lives outside work too. They want flexible work for reasons other than children.
Look at someone in their 30s who has recognised that their career isn’t contributing to their happiness. They want to retrain, so they need to step out of the workforce and fund their education, often without any workplace or government support. This training can lead to a positive contribution to society, but it’s rarely valued in the same way that stepping out for family is.
Awareness before action
I won’t say the family unit shouldn’t be supported by our assumptions and structures – maybe that’s exactly what needs to happen.
I am saying it’s 2019, and millennials who buck the dominant narratives are prominent contributors to society.
So we need to question if the way things are set up are right.
Why does this matter? My concern is the bias towards families is creating resentment and impacting millennials’ wellbeing if they don’t fit the mould.
It often happens when an individual has to pay tax. They get that we all need to contribute, but there’s a feeling of resentment when they look at the amount that they’re putting into the community when their demographic isn’t represented in public policies.
If you have a system that doesn’t recognise or support diversity of experiences, it can lead to people thinking, “Are my views not valid? Am I not a valuable part of this community?”
Shaking the structures
As millennials, we need to be aware of these biases, but not get brought down by them.
Collectively, we can keep changing the narrative and say, “It’s OK to be an individual, to be where I’m at, and wanting what I want.”
If we’re in positions of leadership, we can shape workplace policies to support diversity. As a team member we can be mindful of the different experiences around us and bring change.
We can pay more attention in an election – right down to talking to our local member of parliament about the assumptions and structures in their policies.
It’s like global warming. My husband says to me that not eating meat won’t solve global warming. But the world doesn’t need one perfect person, it needs a billion imperfect people who are trying.
When we’re not fitting the mould, resilience matters.
Last year I wrote about how Everyone has their own shit. This message is absolutely still relevant here. It comes back to being clear on our values and intentions, and saying, “This isn’t about anybody else, I’m in control, I won’t be shaken by others.”
If we have self-awareness of what we value then resilience is a by-product of that.
Financially, there’s less structural support for people that don’t fit the family mould. In the absence of that support, we can recognise that the responsibility falls squarely on the individual or the couple to say, “OK we have to create this for ourselves.”
On a positive, I do believe shifts are happening as leadership positions are taken more by millennials who prioritise different values. There's been an evolution of values, ideas and knowledge that's led us to where we are now in the world.
In some ways that place is wonderful, in others it’s really fucking concerning.
So, can we challenge our assumptions, and the assumptions that others are applying to us? Can we find peace in our self-awareness, while leading change in the status quo?