Opinion

What 20-something women want. (And why you should care.)

A recent study shows Millennial women want independence but also seek multiple perspectives – a refreshing counter to this polarized political climate. Pay attention: Self-determined, networking Millennial women will alter the world we know.

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During the midterm elections this fall, we heard a lot about how our country is broken, how our system is dysfunctional, how our future is bleak. We heard from the left, the right, and everyone in between.

I know I’m not the only one who became tired of the rhetoric. I found myself wanting to hear different voices, different ideas, and different solutions. I had the opportunity to do so when Levi Strauss & Co. approached me to collaborate with them on a research study, “Shaping a New Future.” The study’s goal was to listen to the voices of an often underrepresented group: today’s young women.

We set out to investigate the lives of young women today, with a focus on women in their 20s. What do they want? What are their goals? To whom do they look for guidance? We launched a global study to better understand the challenges, expectations, goals, and experiences Millennial women face around the world.

Why study Millennial women?

There are two compelling reasons for studying Millennial women.

1) Young women are the leaders of the future. The Millennial generation is as large as the baby boomers, and women of this generation have access to more opportunities than any group of women in history.

2) Much of the media attention paid to this generation so far has highlighted the negative. Millennials (those born approximately 1980 or later) are frequently characterized as “entitled,” “helicopter-parented” and the “lost generation.” While some studies have touted the service-oriented, optimistic traits of Millennials, those attributes are too often lost in discussions of their “deferred adulthood” and “apathy.”

With our research, we set out to get the real story from Millennial women themselves. Who are they and what do they want?

Our study used global focus groups, literature review, and a survey of 1,000 Millennial women ages 21 to 29 across the US, Britain, Japan, Brazil, and France.

What we found

We found two major themes that seem diametrically opposed to the current political environment of partisanship and anger. We found that Millennial women desire independence and self-direction above all else, and that they seek a variety of perspectives to help them make personal and professional decisions. They are concerned about the current economy, but they are not paralyzed by it.

When you look beyond the stereotypes about Gen Y/Millennials and consider overall trends, as we did in our study, you’ll start to see a picture of a generation that includes women who are significantly different from previous generations in their priorities and their goals. They are living life on their own terms, and we can learn a lot from how they are navigating our 21st century world.

Miss Independent wants to 'have it all'

For instance, our research found that 96 percent of Millennial women worldwide list being independent as their most important life goal. This ranked above marriage, motherhood, home ownership and other, more traditional pursuits as essential to one’s feeling successful. Eighty-seven percent of women surveyed define success as being able to “shape my own future.” This is a generation of women who understand that there is no one-size-fits-all life plan. Everyone is charting her own journey.

This in no way implies that Millennial women don’t want children, life partners, real estate, or wealth. What it does mean is that they no longer feel they need to achieve these traditional milestones in a particular order or by a particular deadline. Rather than “having it all” (as previous generations of women often hoped for), Millennial women want to try it all and make their major life choices accordingly.

Along with this different, more individualized idea of what a life path should be, Millennial women told us that they seek guidance in different ways than previous generations. We asked whom they turn to for mentorship and learned that today’s twenty-something women most value communal exchange, regardless of age or professional experience. Ninety-four percent of Millennial women agreed that the best mentors are people whom you can both give advice to and receive advice from, regardless of age. This is a clear break from the ages-old “wise mentor counseling young protégé” model of mentorship. In a complex, high tech, globally connected world, this has become a wise strategy.

So what does this mean for us?

So what do these findings mean for Millennial women, and for the rest of us? How will young women’s personal choices affect the greater world?

We will see ambitious, unfettered young women start businesses and social ventures that solve some of society’s most pressing problems. We will see Millennial women’s increased confidence and independence lead to new voices in our creative culture, as young women feel less of a need to “pay their dues” before sharing their art with the world. And we will see entire communities change and evolve, as Millennial women use their vast networks to share information and ideas across generations, ethnic groups, and other affiliations.

Related: Taking the artistic pulse of Generation Y

Are Millennial women perfect? Of course not. Do they sometimes make mistakes because they are young? Absolutely. Might they change as they get older? Most of us do. But there is no question that they are full of more potential, confidence, and opportunity than any previous generation of women. And those are characteristics our country and our world need right now.

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So, if the recent election season has left you feeling confused, concerned, or anything in between, take a lesson from Millennial women: think independently and consider multiple perspectives as you navigate your life path. Share your experiences and advice broadly. And take some time to listen to the twenty-something women in your life. After all, the names of Millennial women may be the ones on our election ballots sooner than we think.

Lindsey Pollak is an author, corporate consultant, and expert on next-generation career trends. She is the lead collaborator on Levi’s “Shape What’s to Come” research, which created an online community, www.shapewhatstocome.com, as a place for Millennial women to collaborate, innovate, and engage.

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