Liquid modernity and the paradox of declining female happiness

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about ideas of academic culture and interdisciplinarity, and imagining a future for the university that takes into account the hyper-connected, globalised, uber-responsive world of today – what Zygmunt Bauman calls the ‘liquid modernity’. I’ve just received a gift of Joseph Aoun’s new book Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artifical Intelligence. But I thought I’d also read some Bauman.

I chose his 2003 book ‘Liquid Love’ because it seemed to cover his broad thinking on modernity with a focus on its implications for human relationships. I find human relationships pretty intriguing, so I figured this one would be an easy read. My friend Aidan joked that it looked like a Mills and Boon novel, but there is no romance in it. Bauman’s despair about modern relationships is clear. I think his ranting tone was rubbing off on me in my recent post on virtual reality. Ranting is rarely convincing; one’s first thought is not ‘mmm, yes, you have a point there’ but ‘why are you so upset about this, personally? What happened to you?’. And, yes, I should consider that regarding my post on VR.

The first thing that really got under my skin reading Liquid Love was Bauman’s apparent conservatism around marriage. His commentary on the modern world of romantic relationships is, well, scathing. He thinks we are all uncaringly pressing ‘delete’ on one another. He makes a surface attempt to engage with the opportunities and challenges of this way of life, but having (I assume) never experienced them for himself (Bauman met his wife Janine at university and they were together until she died in 2009), it reads like he’s looking at them down a microscope. I’m not claiming things are universally better than they used to be, but there is a balanced view to be presented, and Bauman’s perspective is narrow. For example, Bauman would never have had to learn how to consciously uncouple, an modern skill that I believe demands at least as much empathy, generosity and selflessness as staying together, if not more (particularly if you share friends, offspring, pets, property, etc).

There was a time not so long ago where I would have agreed wholeheartedly about a lot of the things Bauman says about human relationships. For example, he feels an immense sense of loss about virtual communication becoming the default, and this used to be a subject close to my heart as well. Initially, the Internet helped me to feel less socially awkward, but as I grew older and became more comfortable around people, I began to find virtual communication unsatisfying and frustrating.

I think I’ve got a more nuanced view these days, and my perspective has broadened in the last few months since my partner and I uncoupled and I have been enjoying living alone. I now spend a lot of time by myself, which I like, and I’ve had some very deep, rich (and sometimes completely unexpected) virtual conversations that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

I have a smallish group of Hackney-based friends and we use a Facebook Messenger group, mainly to exchange stupid stories, pull faces, tell rude jokes, and otherwise make one another laugh. We also use it to organise face-to-face meetings. With this group, I suspect one or two of them do find the online interactions easier and more entertaining. People participate when they’re on top form, and keep quiet when they’re not in the mood, and some quality banter gets exchanged. Still, I wouldn’t say – for most of us at least – that the face-to-face struggles to live up to the virtual. There is something quite delicious about social awkwardness (I know I’m not the only person to think this), and it is usually where the best memories are created and built upon. Meeting up in person is hard work; it’s not just that the interaction can be laboured; trying to make plans in the ever-shifting liquid of modern life is a major source of frustration. Alex Cornell points out: ‘Cellphones make plans susceptible to revision at any moment, thus making them in advance is pointless.’ It’s not quite pointless – yet. We still do it. And mobile phones enable various kinds of impromptu meet-ups that weren’t possible previously. For every challenge, there is an opportunity. We are learning that appearances are deceptive; we are perhaps even more aware now of our efforts to present our best faces to the world (ok, sometimes better than our best – filtered, enhanced, etc.), and that others are doing the same.

My point here is that modernity is just different. Not worse, or better.

I’m not leaping back into techno-evangelism. But reading Bauman’s words, tinged with anger, fear and sadness, really brought it home that there are deeply personal stories behind how we feel about modernity and technological progress. On starting to entertain a fantasy that Bauman’s wife had left him for someone she met on Friends Reunited and this very modern tragedy had fuelled his polemic, I turned to Wikipedia for clues. The entry did explain a few things.

On reading that Bauman wrote on ‘issues as diverse as holocaust and modernity’ my first thought was… are they that diverse? I’d just been writing about Spender and Lukács’ criticism of modernism for its capacity to ‘dissolve the personality’ (weaken the sense of self?), and, yes, I get that modernism and modernity are two separate things, but in these cases they both refer at least in part to the technological approach. Reading on, it seems to indeed be the case that Bauman felt the holocaust was caused by man’s anxiety about ambiguity (In an earlier post I relate anxiety with the narrative self). He actually wrote a book called Modernity and the Holocaust, an excerpt of which follows:

‘Procedural rationality, the division of labour into smaller and smaller tasks, the taxonomic categorisation of different species, and the tendency to view obedience to rules as morally good, all played their role in the Holocaust coming to pass.’

N.B. The values of instrumentalism, efficiency (performativity) and ordering are not exclusively right-wing or Conservative values. Obedience/authority is (according to Jonathan Haidt), but not the others.

The link with the holocaust wasn’t the only factor that I think may have contributed to Bauman’s strong emotions around modernity. Bauman and his wife had three daughters, Anna – an accomplished academic, Lydia – a well-known painter, and Irena, a top architect. Neither Lydia nor Irena ever married or had children. Pure conjecture on my part, but perhaps Zygmunt Bauman wasn’t happy about this state of affairs. Maybe he longed for all of his talented daughters to marry, procreate and continue the family line.

I thought back to some data I’d seen about marriage making men happier and women unhappier. Women’s happiness tends to increase after divorce. I wondered about a feminist perspective on liquid modernity. I felt like Bauman was clinging on to this institution and way of life that wasn’t doing women any favours. The old models of stability in love suited men more than women. I thought about how many of the societal changes Bauman writes about are related to women’s liberation from the home.

And then I found all this sociology research about women’s perceptions of happiness, and realised how complex the picture is. We have a paradox of declining female happiness. Women have traditionally reported higher levels of happiness than men, but they are now reporting happiness levels that are similar or even lower than those of men along with an awareness that they have greater opportunities for happiness than ever before (Stevenson & Wolfers 2009)

Key social trends implicated in this phenomenon include decreased social cohesion (Putnam, 2000), increased anxiety and neuroticism (Twenge, 2000), and increased household risk (Hacker, 2006), all of which may have had a greater impact on women’s happiness than on men’s. Another theory is that women feel more comfortable being honest about their true happiness and have thus adjusted their previously inflated responses! Interestingly, female suicide decreased markedly over time while male rates remain stable. This suggests that while median happiness may have fallen, extreme unhappiness in women has decreased.

The most persuasive theory in my opinion is that the increased opportunities for women to succeed in many dimensions feed concerns that one’s life is not measuring up. Women may now compare their lives to a broader group, including men, and find their lives more likely to come up short in this assessment. There are studies that indicate that men are still putting in more hours at work, but it is difficult to know just how much of the overall burden of home production has shifted, as measuring the emotional, as well as physical, work of making a home is a difficult task.

Akerlof, Yellen, and Katz (1996) have a particular theory around the ‘sexual freedom’ offered by the birth control pill. Often touted as a liberating force for women, they argue that the Pill actually benefited men by increasing the pressure on women to have sex outside of marriage, and dismantling the social obligation for a man to marry his pregnant lover. Did men glean a disproportionate share of the benefits of the women’s movement?

Essentially, it would seem that the decline in female happiness is widespread and cannot be attributed easily to one social phenomenon. Married/single, working/non-working – across large data sets these distinctions don’t appear to make a difference. A more pertinent question may be – why has men’s perceived happiness not decreased when objective measures of wellbeing are coming up short across the board?

This question points us to declines in marital satisfaction, which is common across the genders. However, marital satisfaction is more closely linked to perceived overall happiness for women. It is difficult to assess the role of changes in marital satisfaction on women’s overall happiness since marital satisfaction is only asked among those who are married and changing selection over time in this group makes causal inference challenging.

Maybe the home was a nice place for women to be because we made it so (here I am reminded of Richard’s provocative recent piece on Hugh Hefner and the reclamation of the home from domesticity). As women gained greater access to the world men created, they didn’t like what they encountered. This fits with the ‘expectation gap’ hypothesis. It will take a long while for women’s influence to affect the world’s infrastructure, much of which – social, physical, virtual – has been, and is still being, designed by men.

My diversion into a feminist perspective on modernity was fun – it got a lot of responses when I posted about it in the Facehole – but as I got further through Bauman’s book I must admit suffering a bit of a smash to my self-esteem. I recall cradling a comforting cup of tea, feeling like a deformed product of fluid modern society.

Bauman brings together Gadamer and Kant (p125) – two of my favourite philosophers when it comes to considering the potential for individual and collective human flourishing, and what we need to do to fulfill these. Gadamer emphasised the importance of fusing our horizons; of seeking to know the perspective of the other. As Bauman says, Kant warned us of the challenges of impending modernity more than two hundred years ago; he thought the lack of space would mean that we would be forced to embrace reciprocal hospitality.

I’m not sure we are there yet. Perhaps we are, in a way. Our technologies support a marketisation of reciprocity, and we appear to prefer that over something more organic. Take Airbnb for example – an exchange that engages human relations, understanding, negotiation etc., but depends on money to ensure exchanges are equal. The technology makes it practically feasible. The principle of open reviews helps both host and guest to choose to behave like reasonable human beings, and there are checks and guidelines in place to ensure participants are treated fairly and not discriminated against.

I rather think that the scarcity of space (particularly here in London) has meant that we have a greater desire to carve it out for ourselves. One of the factors in my partner and I separating was me quite literally needing to have a place of my own. I could have tolerated sharing the rest of it, if I’d only had one room of my own to retreat to. For many of my friends – including my ex-partner – the only option is to live in communal houses. But at least then you do get one room to yourself. I’m pretty sure Zygmunt Bauman and Immanuel Kant both had their own rooms to retreat to. I imagine they probably didn’t even have to clean it themselves either.

Airbnb allows me to offer a flexible, zero-hours position of ‘housemate’. I set the terms, and both of us have to stick to those terms or we get negative reviews. Ideally I’d prefer not to take people quite so often, but I need to pay the mortgage, and there are genuine positives. I get to meet nice people who I wouldn’t otherwise meet, it means the place never gets untidy, and having a stranger wandering around keeps me on task, away from the fridge and out of the Facehole. Most importantly, though, I am in control. I choose to share, or not share. If I really need blessed solitude, I take it. No commitment to a lifetime of someone else’s off-days, with both of you free to be your worst possible selves to one another. Maybe a little performativity isn’t a bad thing.

I’m not saying modernity’s better than what came before. But I don’t agree with Bauman that it’s worse. It’s different; it has different opportunities and different challenges. I’ve adapted to it, and I’m influencing it. Structure and agency…

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