When the COVID lockdowns began in March 2020—that great sterilization of our personal lives, that mass removal of distraction—I observed something strange. My peers, ordinarily proud of their independence, realized that they didn’t just love their families but kinda liked them. Other friends—friends who’d been stuck quarantining with roommates or, worse yet, alone—yearned for families. They began joking about how nice it’d be to have a husband and kids for company in eating or drinking themselves to death or, less gloomily, in sharing their freshly baked sourdoughs. With the mounting pressure of COVID restrictions, many people learned that their “chosen families” of friends and colleagues were less durable than they’d thought.
I wasn’t a detached onlooker. I, too, worked a tech job 3,000 miles away from my family, the kind located on a plush campus with floor-to-ceiling windows and on-demand gelato. Then suddenly the artifice was stripped away, and my time was no longer broken up by campus bike rides or leisurely strolls to the office sushi chef. I was alone facing the silence of the day, and I found myself confronted by questions I hadn’t asked since my early twenties: What am I for? Why am I doing any of this?
My days amounted to sitting on my couch in a 400-square-foot apartment, my neighborhood a sea of strip malls rapidly being abandoned, as I did technical writing for a megacorporation. For months, the only socialization I had was during phone calls with my parents and Zoom meetings in which I’d litigate a comma placement for 45 minutes. This is what my life looked like when all perks were stripped away. It wasn’t the reason I’d put off having a family, but it was what occupied that void. The misery I saw my friends experiencing was my misery too.
It was around this time that I noticed an uptick in feminism-skeptical social media content. There’s always been a market for anti-feminism online for the same reasons that being a “gamer girl” sells: It leverages a niche position that’s in high demand but undersupplied. And yet this felt different. The feminism-critical content I was seeing came from all points on the political spectrum, across every race and economic demographic, and, importantly, from people who didn’t appear to be selling anything. Of course, there were some people angling to become capital-p Personalities, but mostly I saw ordinary women venting their frustrations, many of them spurred by the conditions brought on by the pandemic. Some of these women were part of larger digital subcultures, like the modest fashion movement, or the now infamous subreddit, Female Dating Strategy. Others were part of nascent philosophical and intellectual scenes, a reactionary feminism spearheaded by writers like Mary Harrington, Louise Perry, Nina Power, Helen Roy, and Alex Kaschuta.
But this didn’t seem like a case of subcultural capture, or a trendy ideology amplified by a small group of vocal spokespeople. It was a much broader feeling that something had gone terribly wrong, leaving so many women so deeply unhappy in lives that seemed, on the surface, to be tolerable, or even good.
“The ‘I’m an independent strong Black woman’ narrative is a scam,” said one TikTok video personality in August, cautioning Black women, in particular, against buying into the familiar “girl boss” narrative, and encouraging them to seek stability in their communities. Alt-girls with septum piercings and tattoo sleeves shared how the microblogging site Tumblr’s glamorization of sex work and BDSM put them in harm’s way. Another video, since taken down, featured Muslim women discussing the pitfalls of Western feminism.
These critiques crept into explicitly left and left-liberal spaces, too, not just those prone to agree with socially conservative thought. In the wake of the West Elm Caleb episode—a peak COVID-era social media spectacle in which several women realized they’d been ghosted by the same man—even the notoriously and often punitively “woke” Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz levied criticism against the excesses of #MeToo. Porn came under the microscope; dating app burnout escaped its manosphere containment zone; the perception of OnlyFans evolved from a “great way to make this month’s rent” to a predatory multilevel marketing scheme.
For over a decade, liberal or choice feminism has been fashionable. Despite the supposed mainstreaming of socialist thought, intrinsically capitalist archetypes like the “girl boss” were still idealized. In the realm of dating, the notion that enthusiastic consent is the cornerstone of good sex was ubiquitous; women’s publications placed a disproportionate focus on a brand of feminism that eschewed emotional attachment, embraced being a “hot mess,” and bandied about the slogan “all men are trash.” Like “epic bacon” before it, it was only a matter of time before the pendulum swung and we got a software update that said, “This isn’t cool anymore.” But these changes are also rooted in something deeper. Our world just can’t sustain the lives these values have wrought.
There’s this fashionable notion that women without children or husbands are happier. Let’s assume that’s true and not just a decontextualization of some rogue statistic with perfect headline potential. That would only be true in a society that can support it: a stable society built by people who make sacrifices and raise kids so that the childless rest can enjoy their lives. And importantly, it would only be true of some people, people who are aberrations to the norm. If everyone’s single and childless, then society stops being able to function. It’s like being a celebrity. If everyone is a celebrity, then nobody is a celebrity. Being unshackled from adult responsibilities is only attractive in a world that demands them in the first place.
The same realizations spurred by the shock of mandatory quarantines—that the burden of a family isn’t necessarily a bad one, that a life alone is only as fun as the distractions available—will come into even sharper relief as millennials enter middle age. Marriage and fertility rates continue to decline; meanwhile, the rates of deaths of despair, friendlessness, and loneliness balloon. Recognizing systemic problems is nothing new to us millennials, but what does seem to be new is the need to expand our purview beyond the realm of economics. If capitalism failed our generation, then it failed more than just our bank accounts. It disrupted everything from our identities and our family life to the way we make friends and find love. Suffering through this latest crisis isn’t just being burdened by student loans—it’s putting off kids, too. And the culture of capitalism is about marketing those failures as cool lifestyle choices. Podcasts like “Sofia with an F,” and “Why Won’t You Date Me,” are filled with reassurances that women can settle down whenever they want to. The horizon on choice doesn’t have to end if you have the right mindset and a willingness to freeze your eggs or make good use of IVF.
It’s not so much that millennials were just fed a bunch of lies and need to fix their behavior; it’s that their environment didn’t allow them to behave any differently, and they attacked anything but the root cause. The “girl boss” makes sense in an environment where you’re going to have to work a soul-sucking job no matter what; why not add a veneer of glamour to it? In a world where day care is an expensive necessity, there is a womblike comfort in telling yourself stories about how staying childless is an “act of heroism” or even a ticket to happiness.
For working-class millennials, the crisis materialized differently. They were forced back into what is essentially multigenerational housing in a world where this kind of reliance on family is stigmatized. Not only was moving back home seen as a personal failure—and for the parents providing for you, a burden—it limited the possibilities for romance. And so, they, too, had to create new narratives around courtship and dating. If the model of marriage as a union based on choice and love as opposed to social and economic pragmatism proved disastrous when scaled, then it makes sense to eschew marriage altogether.
Perhaps all of these trends are the lies we tell ourselves about our jobs, our relationships, and our feelings of futility to make life more tenable—a form of denial that retrieves a modicum of control. It sounds harsh, but as millennial women begin aging, and they are increasingly doing so alone, the clarion call naturally becomes, “Your life doesn’t end at 30, 35, 40.” I happen to agree that life doesn’t end at 30—I would hope it doesn’t! It doesn’t end in middle age, either. However, “life doesn’t end at 30” shouldn’t be a euphemism for loitering in some kind of extended adolescence, an alternate way of saying, “You are still capable of looking and behaving like a 22-year-old.”
These lies set women up for even more heartbreak as they learn that saying they can act as if they’re 22 at 30 doesn’t mean that they’ll be treated as if they’re 22 at 30. This isn’t a shallow commentary on women aging out of the dating pool, either, though it’s true that dating becomes harder as you get older. As you age, your desires change. Your disposition changes. Your brain changes. Your hormone makeup changes. Nobody is free from biological reality. It’s tragic that it becomes more difficult to have children after the age of 35 in a world where people are encouraged to see adulthood as a burden they can postpone indefinitely.
And while, yes, it’s possible for many women to conceive even into their forties, the reality is that there is a fertility cliff. IVF doesn’t fix all; freezing your eggs doesn’t necessarily mean that those eggs will be viable. Some would have you believe that even a phrase like “biological reality” is a far-right dog whistle—that it’s a symptom of a problem some portions of our society are unwilling or unable to face.
Women are waking up to the truth through new expressions of feminism, growing digital subcultures, and reanimated political movements. But more broadly, they’re waking up to the truth in ordinary ways. They’re looking around at their lives and realizing that time is finite, and they’re long overdue for a change.
Katherine Dee is an internet culture reporter and advice columnist. You can find her at defaultfriend.substack.com.