Women in Waithood: Why We Need To Get Rid Of Social Indicators For Adulthood
Over the last few decades, young people around the world have been victim to rising austerity measures, the destruction and minimisation of public welfare support and the ever-increasing scarcity of employment. Young people are finding themselves in more precarious positions than ever before, with harsh economies impeding job creation, stopping them from saving up enough money to move out of their family homes, get married, own their own homes and be financially independent. For the first time in history, young people are worse off than their parents. But what are the implications of this?
It means that young people around the world are now stuck in a position of “waithood”.
What is waithood?
Although biologically they are considered adults, people stuck in “waithood” can’t achieve the traditional social indicators of growing up. The concept of “waithood” is most often applied to economically poorer regions, however, it also applies to youth in the Western world, often labelled the yo-yo generation in the UK or boomerang kids in the US. The whole idea of waithood takes away agency from young people, presenting them as lazy, indecisive and incapable of ‘growing up’. This particularly leaves young women in a position where they aren’t taken seriously by society, have their needs ignored and are left disenfranchised in hostile environments that aren’t built for them to succeed. Societies around the world need a redefinition of the social indicators that mark women’s adulthood. Women should not feel like they are failures just because they aren’t married, mothers, or homeowners. Women shouldn’t be left to feel incompetent because society tells them that they aren’t real adults until they’ve ticked a certain number of boxes. Women shouldn’t be left in this “waithood” position that implies they are inactive members of society until they accomplish a certain number of societal expectations.
What are some of the social indicators holding women back?
American political scientist Diane Singerman writes that “in Egypt young people live with their families until they get married, and frankly they are not considered adults until they get married, especially for women”. This isn’t an experience unique to egypt. Most societies around the globe don’t consider women to be fully fledged adults until they get hitched. There’s an expectation that all women should get married, after all, it’s what adults do. This idea is reflected in Kirstin Koch’s article “Life Before Marriage: Why You’re Not An Adult Until You Tie the Knot”. She writes “My career was thriving, but still, I sensed a barrier. It soon became apparent that my unmarried status was preventing me from being taken seriously as an adult and a professional. I was trapped in relationship purgatory”. She explains that once she was engaged she was treated as an equal by her older colleagues. She ends the piece writing that marriage is a “rite of passage that marks a person's transition into adulthood. And although we may leave the nest and support ourselves long before we marry these days, whether we like it or not, society still sees marriage as the ultimate maturity gauge”.
Essentially, women’s value in terms of adulthood is dependent on a man. You’re passed on from your father’s care directly into the hands of your husband, who somehow magically transforms you into an adult. It’s an old-fashioned, narrow-minded conception of adulthood that needs to be banished. A woman’s sense of maturity shouldn’t be measured by her relationship with a man, let alone her marital status. It diminishes the value of women and their identities as independent people. Getting married doesn’t suddenly make you an adult. But societies around the world believe that it does, making single women feel undervalued, and stuck in a bizarre purgatory in which they’re not quite respected as adults and yet not considered to be kids.
According to a survey conducted by health insurance provider Beagle Street, 63% of over 18s in the UK believe that becoming a parent is the biggest sign of being an adult. Meanwhile, a report by E.S Donkor reveals that in Ghana childbearing is the primary goal of marriage, and childlessness is seen as a major taboo. We see this around the world - as soon as you seem to be settled in a relationship, you’re bombarded with questions about how many children you’re going to have, when you’re going to have them, what you’re going to call them. And if you’re single, you’re thrown the ‘you need to find a man quickly and start trying for babies, the body clock is ticking after all!’. For some reason, children seem to be a social sign of success and adulthood, alienating women who either can’t or simply don't want to have kids. Positing motherhood as a key aspect of adulthood and success is ridiculous. Having children doesn’t give you some sort of superiority in the world, and motherhood shouldn’t be regarded as a universal destination for all women. Not everyone is in the position to want or have children, and they shouldn’t be seen as ‘waiting’ if they don’t have kids.
Another social indicator for adulthood is establishing a career and having financial security. But that’s all the more difficult in economic landscapes where global youth unemployment is on the rise. Young people are having to be more creative with their career goals, and are coming up with their own jobs. Meanwhile in Africa, more and more women take employment matters in their own hands and become part of the informal labour market, growing their own small-scale businesses. But these women are often disregarded because they don’t make up part of the formal employment sectors. The problem with the phrase “waithood” is that it implies that young women who aren’t married, don’t have children, or a permanent job are simply sat at home doing nothing but watching their clocks and waiting.
Rather than trying to fit into the rigid boxes that society has created for adulthood, youth are now redefining their own identities. Women don’t have to get married or have children, they might opt to travel instead of trying to get unto the property ladder, they might hop from one job to another rather than deciding on one single career. And that doesn’t mean that they’re inactive or passive. It doesn’t mean that they’re making the best out of a bad situation. It simply means that society is evolving and developing, and we need to stop having universal social indicators that make someone an “adult”. Adulthood is, after all, a social construct.
Article by Chanju Mwanza