Diana Zuckerman doesn't look at her recent computer printout sheets with the entirely objective eye of a research psychologist. Something has emerged out of the Seven College Study she's directing at Radcliffe that is unexpected and intriguing.
The figures she lays out on her desk suggest that the women and men at these elite eastern schools are beginning to express almost identical hopes, values, expectations and life plans.
The career plans of women look almost exactly like those of men. Law, medicine, business and communications attract the sexes equally. Only 10 of the 8,000 women studied at what used to be called the Seven Sister Colleges--Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley--chose homemaking as their future careers.
The personal goals of men, in turn, look a great deal like those of the women. About a third of the 1,000 men at the two fully coed schools in this study--Harvard and Vassar --said they would prefer to stay home or work part-time with their preschool children. The sexes ranked both "time to spend with spouse" and "career" as high priorities.
There in her figures, among the duly designated "best and brightest," are both men and women with great expectations. Men and women who plan to be tops in their field without sacrificing their personal, family lives. Men and women who expect to have it all.
In many ways, the goals they set reflect the women's movement ideal. Yet, looking at those life plans and thinking about the world as it is, Zuckerman can't help expressing a reservation: "Maybe they are unrealistic."
Such a thought is not unique to this woman or this study or this Cambridge campus. Last week in Atlanta, a faculty member at Emory University talked to me about her women students. The younger generation doesn't foresee any special problem getting ahead because they are women, she said. Nor do they predict any trouble balancing family and career. Their certainty, their calm, seem to her, well, unrealistic.
In Florida last month, another woman satirized the expectations of a favorite niece from that generation: corporate officer by 29, full-time mother from 30 to 35 and back on the track to vice president. No problem, smiled this doubtful woman, whose own life was a testimony to the troubles of getting derailed. "They're so unrealistic," she sighed in frustration.
It is no coincidence that all of my reality- testers are in mid-life, people in their thirties and forties who have done time in the real world. Their concerns for the young people they know are genuine, yet colored by their own experiences and compromises.
They worry whether men and women are going out into the world as unprepared for its pitfalls as pre-schoolers crossing a highway. They worry whether they, as the older generation, are doing enough to point out the dangers--over here is sex discrimination, over there are inflexible working conditions--so the young won't get wiped out by the first truck.
On the other hand, some wonder whether this ignorance is an asset. Perhaps it's only the unrealistic young who accomplish great things, even great changes.
Diana Zuckerman looks at her findings and asks herself, "Are the students out of their minds and, therefore, must be helped to be realistic? Or is being so sure of their goals going to give them the boost they need to make it happen?"
It's a series of questions that seem familiar to most of us. Surely parents ask it about their children. The young musicians, artists, reformers at home tell us of their dreams and we are conflicted. We want to encourage and protect them.
Should we tell them the odds against making a pro basketball team, warn them about the annual income of a ballerina, teach them about the struggle of a political life? Will we have made them safe or just killed their dreams? Are we wiser than the young or just wearier?
There is probably some good reason why younger people reject the cautions of their elders. Zuckerman, who is only 32, notes that, "The younger women who are really sure of their goals say that what was true for me and my generation is not true for them. They are saying that we just don't know."
Maybe the great expectations of these young men and women will breed disappointment. But maybe they'll fuel change. How many of us, after all, are leading lives that were once terribly, terribly unrealistic?