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Thirty-Something: Departing from Convention

By their mid-thirties, women realized that their chances of marrying had become slim and that their value in the marriage market continued to decline. A handful of women past their mid-thirties continued to hope for a future that included marriage and family as their primary source of meaning in life. Most women in this age group, however, realized that they did not want to or could not follow conventions to marry as expected by their parents, colleagues, and bosses. These women understood the importance of independence in thought and action and the need to take control of their lives. It may be the case that women who reached their midto late thirties without marrying tended to be more independent and questioning of social norms than women who married before this age.

Here i introduce two women in their thirties who questioned conventional paths for women in both work and marriage. Thirty-one-year-old reiko had just quit a full-time position as a textbook editor at a major publishing firm and was taking freelance jobs while considering her next career move. I met her in her small rented tokyo apartment, where she was both living and working. She said, “i'm not sure what i'd like to do now. When i graduated from university, i also didn't want to go through the job-hunting process [shūshoku katsudō] [which usually takes place during the third and fourth years of university]. The school told us that that's what we should be doing, but i didn't know what that was, and i just couldn't do it. After graduating, for six months i stayed at home and didn't work. I had no idea what it meant for me, as a woman, to work. Also, my mother was a full-time housewife, so she couldn't help me.”

Reiko similarly took an unconventional approach to marriage. She said: “i've been seeing my boyfriend for about six years. I'm not interested in getting married. I can't imagine living with him. Our lifestyles would clash. I'm worried that if i lived with him, i would start to feel stress. I would worry, for example, that he's not eating a balanced diet.” She uses conventional concerns associated with housewives—for example, to feed her husband properly—to explain why she didn't want to marry. From her words we can see that reiko would not make decisions about her life course merely because such decisions were expected. Rather, she wanted to consider for herself how each decision related to her life. When i met her for a second interview two years later, reiko told me that soon after our first interview she had broken up with her boyfriend, a university lecturer, when she realized that he did not have space in His life for her. She had since become engaged to be married to a man who had been her friend for many years, a divorcé who was raising two children. She had not returned to a full-time position at a publishing firm but had continued to work as a freelance editor from her home. She had resisted conventional paths and was happy with her upcoming marriage and with the freedom she exercised in her work. Her sense of satisfaction was achieved through painful self-reflection and thought. She had proceeded at work and in romantic relationships at her own pace and in the face of others' criticism and doubt.

Miki, thirty-four, a high school–educated woman, had also created her own path through life. She had bought her own condominium apartment (manshon) two years earlier in central tokyo, thus allowing her to move out of a cramped apartment in yokohama where she had lived with her parents and younger brother. As the prices of apartments had fallen in tokyo, she was able to find a place within her budget. She was one of only two single women i interviewed who had purchased her own apartment. She did it without consulting her parents. She explained, “i've always done things that surprised my parents. They were also opposed to my studying in the United states for a year. I paid for it myself and studied at a community college. They didn't want me to go. They said that i'd be killed, that i'd be shot. That's the kind of people they are. They're the kind of people who think that girls don't need to go to college. They want me to marry and have children. That's why i make a decision and then tell them what i've decided. That's what i did about going to the United states and about this apartment.”

In the marriage market, Miki did not feel pressed to compete, as she felt that she did not need to marry. She had a Canadian boyfriend who lived in the United states and whom she saw a few times a year. She said that they did not get along well when they spent extensive amounts of time together, so it might be better not to marry. Her dreams for the future did not involve marriage and family. Rather, she wanted to buy another apartment and travel around the world. Miki worked for a small, foreign-affiliated company as a regular staff member. She had joined this firm after quitting her job at a previous company, also as a regular staff member, after the company introduced several rounds of layoffs that affected worker morale. She felt that she was lucky to have found her current job after a long search, as she saw that she might not be so fortunate the next time because of her age. She was thinking of studying online for an accounting degree and hoped to one day start up her own business of providing accounting work online for foreign firms. Both reiko and Miki broke with convention early in their adult lives. Miki was clearly thinking of how she would adapt to the new economy and was planning to leave the employment market to start her own business. Other women were more reluctant to give up on a conventional life, and they tended to be more passive in their decision making. They were also probably less prepared financially and psychologically for living an independent life. Women in the midto late thirties age range had started working when jobs were relatively plentiful and stable. Most had not expected that they would still be single in their thirties, and they had not expected that they would need to strategize and struggle in the employment market. Yet if they remained single, they still had several decades of work ahead of them, and they were still young enough to be able to invest in themselves and adapt to the changing economy. While not all women in this age group had the motivation and initiative of reiko and Miki, they all understood the need to make plans and prepare for an uncertain future.

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