A new generation of Elizabeth Bennets have taken control

A new generation of Elizabeth Bennets have taken control

Marrying for financial security has become a thing of the past for British families, according to new research conducted to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s iconic novel Pride and Prejudice.

The Scottish Widows study reveals how priorities have changed for the UK’s modern day families, compared with the Bennet family and a newly independent female generation, historically forced to seek a marriage based on economic security.

The Scottish Widows survey of 1,000 parents in Britain reveals that whilst women of Elizabeth Bennet’s time were forced to seek a marriage of convenience for economic security, less than one in three parents today believe their daughters’ financial security is dependent on having a husband.

Today, more parents believe their sons’ financial security is dependent on having a wife than their daughters’ financial security is on having a husband.

It is fascinating to compare life as we know it today with life in the Bennet’s time 200 years ago [...] We have certainly seen a big change...

Priorities have drastically changed. Today, over half of parents’ (56 per cent) top priority for their children is getting a good education. Only four per cent believe that starting a family should be a priority for their children. In 1813, there seemed little reason to educate or train daughters for a career as they were expected to marry and be supported by somebody else’s son.

But times have changed and women can make it on their own now. Nearly eight out of 10 parents with daughters think doing well at school/university and getting a good job is the answer to achieving the greatest financial security for the future, only seven per cent think the answer is marrying well.

This is a stark contrast to Elizabeth’s day when a good marriage is what secured status and position.

While options for savings were limited in 1813, 90 per cent of parents today give their children advice about saving for the future, including pensions and long-term investments. 

Stuart Green, Head of Brand at Scottish Widows says: "It is fascinating to compare life as we know it today with life in the Bennet’s time 200 years ago.

“Whilst there are many similarities, such as parental concerns and the importance placed on family values, we also see some drastic differences. We have certainly seen a big change in opportunities for the daughters of today to increase their financial independence and long term financial wellbeing.”

To shed some light on how 21st century expectations for women compare with those in the Bennets’ time, Scottish Widows partnered with leading social historian Professor Jane Humphries, Professor of Economic History at Oxford University and Fellow of All Souls College Oxford, to analyse the lifestyles, values, and opportunities for women 200 years ago and today.

From Ballroom to Boardroom

According to Humphries, ‘in the 19th century, for girls of Elizabeth Bennet's class, work would have been socially disastrous: a shameful sign of the inability of the young woman's father to maintain his family properly.’ Professional careers and university education were closed to women until late into the 19th century, and opportunities available were limited to such professions as domestic roles, school teaching and dressmaking. A woman’s financial future was dependant on her choice of partner, meaning that the decision to marry was much more important than the choice of career.

Two hundred years later, opportunities have widened greatly for women. Almost two thirds of parents would advise their children to do A-Levels or enter Higher Education before entering the workforce in the current climate, and would encourage their daughters to pursue professional careers in industries such as technology, law and medicine.

Parental Advice

In the 1800s, parents did not just advise – they made the decisions for their children. As shown throughout Austen’s novels, parents would even threaten rebellious children with disinheritance and economic blackmail. Today parents are encouraging children to make their own decisions and over three quarters most want them to be financially independent by age 26.

Saving for the Future

According to Humphries, in 1813, options for saving were not as varied or widespread as today.  Assets, whether physical or financial, had to provide liquidity, return and diversification for their owners. The rich often felt little obligation to save for the future, as their assets provided a permanent income. For women, this could be disastrous should their husband neglect to adequately provide for them or pass away.

Today, parents encourage their children to save. Just over half of parents encourage regular savings, and 44 per cent encourage their children to pay into a pension scheme. Daughters appear to heed the advice; nine in 10 women now take responsibility for saving towards retirement, and are not wholly dependent on a partner’s savings.

Stuart adds: “As Scottish Widows approaches its own 200th anniversary next year, having established our business around the same time of the Bennet tale, our goal is to continue to unlock lessons from the past and present to provide relevant savings and pensions advice for all modern day families.”

Re-Writing a Classic

Professor Humphries says: “This new research by Scottish Widows reveals that the nature of the support has changed, girls no longer need dowries and settlements to attract husbands, they need down payments and student loans to get them on the property ladder and through the system of higher education.

“Considering the changes in Modern Day Bennet’s family priorities, a modern day Pride & Prejudice might begin ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman is capable of building her own good fortune by herself.”

What do you think are the biggest family changes in the last two centuries? Tell us in the comments below or tweet us @FemaleFirst_UK