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The New York Times


World Bows To The New Girl Order

October 28, 2007

By Kay S. Hymowitz

After my flight from New York touched down in Warsaw, I watched a middle-aged passenger rush to embrace a waiting younger woman—clearly her daughter.

Like many people on the plane, the older woman wore drab clothing and had the short, square physique of someone familiar with too many potatoes and too much manual labour. Her Poland-based daughter, by contrast, was tall and wore pointy-toed pumps, slim-cut jeans, a cropped jacket revealing a toned midriff and a large, brass-studded leather bag, into which she dropped a silver mobile phone.

Yes: Carrie Bradshaw is alive and well and living in Warsaw. Well, not just Warsaw. Today you can find her in cities across Europe, Asia and North America. Seek out the trendy shoe stores in Shanghai, Berlin, Singa-pore, Seoul and Dublin, and you will see crowds of single young females (SYFs) in their twenties and thirties, who spend their hours working their abs and their careers, sipping cocktails, dancing at clubs and talking about relationships. Sex and the City has gone global.

Is this just the latest example of American cultural imperialism or is it the triumph of planetary feminism? Neither. The global-isation of the SYF reflects a series of demographic and economic shifts that are pointing much of the world towards a New Girl Order.

Three demographic facts are at the core of what is happening. First, women—especially, but not only, in the developed world—are getting married and having children considerably later than before. According to the United Nations' world fertility report, the worldwide median age of marriage for women is up two years, from 21.2 in the 1970s to 23.2 today. In the developed countries the rise has been considerably steeper—from 22.0 to 26.1.

In Asia and eastern Europe the transformation has been abrupt. In today's Hungary, for instance, 30% of women in their early thirties are single, compared with 6% of their mothers' generation at the same age. In South Korea, 40% of 30-year-olds are single, compared with 14% only 20 years ago.

The second part of the story is that today's aspiring middle-class women, unlike their maternal ancestors, are looking for careers, not jobs. That means they need lots of schooling. In the newly global economy, good jobs go to those with degrees.

The majority of university students are female in Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Norway and Australia, and the gender gap is narrowing in more traditional countries such as China, Japan and South Korea. That educated women are staying single is unsurprising; women with degrees have always been more likely to marry late, if they marry at all.

What has made the demogra-phers take notice are the trans-national numbers of women postponing marriage while they get diplomas and start careers. In Britain, close to a third of 30-year-old university-educated women are unmarried; in Spain, the average age of first birth has risen to nearly 30, which appears to be a world record.

Adding to the contemporary SYF's novelty is the third demographic shift: urbanisation. In the past, women who delayed marriage generally lived with their parents, labouring in their shops or farms, contributing to the family kitty. A lot of today's bachelorettes move from their native village or town to Boston or Berlin or Seoul because that's where the jobs, boys and bars are—and they spend their earnings on themselves.

Combine these trends—delayed marriage, expanded higher education and labour-force participation, urbanisation—add a global media and some disposable income and voilĂ : an international lifestyle is born. That lifestyle means new realms of leisure and consumption, often enjoyed with a group of girlfriends: trendy cafes and bars; boutiques selling cosmetics, handbags, shoes, designer jeans; gyms for toning and male-watch-ing; ski resorts and beach hotels.

In the 1990s we were being introduced to the sexually assertive Bradshaw. At about the same time, women in Asia and in postcommunist Europe began to join the SYF demographic. Not surprisingly, they also loved watching themselves, or at least Hollywood versions of themselves, on television. Friends, Ally McBeal and Sex and the City became global favourites. In repressive places such as Singa-pore and China, which banned Sex and the City, women passed around pirated DVDs.

By the late 1990s the SYF lifestyle had gone global. They shop for shoes in Kyoto, handbags in Shanghai, jeans in Prague and lipgloss in Singapore; they sip lattes in Dublin, drink cocktails in Chicago and read lifestyle magazines in Krakow; they go to wine tastings in Boston, speed-dating events in Amsterdam, yoga classes in Paris and ski resorts outside Tokyo.

"At the fashionable Da Capo Cafe on bustling Kolonaki Square in downtown Athens, Greek professionals in their thirties and early forties luxuriate over their iced cappuccinos," a Newsweek International article began last year.

"Their favorite topic of conversation is, of course, relationships: men's reluctance to commit, women's independence and when to have children."

With no children or parents to support and with serious financial hardship a bedtime story told by ageing grandparents, SYFs have ignited what The Economist calls the "Bridget Jones economy", named, of course, after the book and movie heroine who is perhaps the most famous SYF of all.

In 2000 Marian Salzman—then president of the Intelligence Factory, a London-based research consultancy—said that by the 1990s, "women living alone had come to comprise the strongest consumer bloc in much the same way that yuppies did in the 1980s". So it is SYFs who drive the growth of fashion chains such as Zara, with 1,000 outlets in 54 countries.

Chick lit has spread all over the world: books by Marian Keyes, the Irish writer, appear in 29 languages. The Devil Wears Prada was an international hit as both a book and a film. And television is producing Sex and the City clones such as The Marrying Type in South Korea and The Balzac Age in Russia.

Bridget Joneses are also remaking the travel industry, especially in Asia, where four out of every 10 trips are taken by women. Female travellers have led to the "spa-ification of the Asian hotel industry". That sector is growing at 200% a year.

Now the maturing Bridget Jones economy has begun to feature big-ticket items. In 2003 the Diamond Trading Company introduced the "right-hand ring"—a diamond for women with no marital prospects but who are longing for a rock.

Japan presents a striking example of the rise of the New Girl Order. As recently as the 1980s, the dominant image of the Japanese woman was of the housewife who doted on her children and waited on the man of the house after his 16-hour day at the office. She still exists, but about a decade ago she met her nemesis: the Japanese SYF.

Between 1994 and 2004, the number of Japanese women aged 25 to 29 who were unmarried soared from 40% to 54%. Because of Tokyo's expensive housing market, a good many of these single women still lived with their parents, leading a prominent sociologist to brand them as "parasite singles". The derogatory term took off but the girls were not disturbed. Many printed business cards bearing their proud new title.

Postcommunist Europe is also going through the shock of the New Girl Order. Under communist rule, women tended to marry and have children early. Tying the knot was the only way to gain independence: married couples could get an apartment, singles could not. Contraception was limited and marriages frequently began as the result of unplanned pregnancies. Then the Berlin Wall came down.

There is much to admire in the New Girl Order: it means the possibility of more varied lives and aspirations. SYFs bring ambition, energy and innovation to the economy, both local and global; the SYF, in sum, represents a dramatic advance in personal freedom and wealth.

Then there are India's unmarried. "They're single, independent and happy," reports India Tribune. Young urbanites are pushing up sales of designer labels; Indian chick lit, along with Cosmopolitan and Vogue, flies out of shops in Delhi and Mumbai. Amazingly enough, fertility rates have dropped below replacement level in several Indian cities, thanks in part to aspirant fashionistas.

If in India the New Girl Order can reduce population growth, then perhaps nothing is beyond its powers. At the very least, the Indian experiment gives new meaning to the phrase "shop till you drop".

The single life

Ilana Rakhorst, 25, from Islington, north London, works in the music industry and is one of the vanguard of British women embracing the single life.

"I do what I want, when I want. No one expects too much of me, and if going out and having fun is one of the most enjoyable things for my generation, why hold back?" she says.

"We are constantly told to stay young, happy and free, so we're encouraged to want that lifestyle. I live in a young, vibrant city, I have a fun and exciting job that involves a lot of after-hours socialising, and have nothing to look out for but myself."

Rakhorst split up with a long-term boyfriend three months ago: "When I look back, I guess I wanted to be free from having to answer to someone. I simply wasn't ready to share my life."

She does see herself getting married and having children, but not until her late twenties or early thirties, much the same as the national average age of 29. In 1971 the average age for a British woman to get married was 23.

"I've got years of being settled and sensible ahead of me," she says, "so I want to embrace my youth and independence while I can."

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