Today's single young men hang out in a hormonal limbo between adolescence and adulthood
It's 1965, and you're a 26-year-old white guy. You have a factory job, or maybe you work for an insurance broker. Either way, you're married, probably have been for a few years now; you met your wife in high school, where she was in your sister's class. You've already got one kid, with another on the way. For now, you're renting an apartment in your parents' two-family house, but you're saving up for a three-bedroom ranch house in the next town. Yup, you're an adult!
Now meet the 21st-century you, also 26. You've finished college and work in a cubicle in a large Chicago financial-services firm. You live in an apartment with a few single guy friends. In your spare time, you play basketball with your buddies, download the latest indie songs from iTunes, have some fun with the Xbox 360, take a leisurely shower, massage some product into your hair and face – and then it's off to bars and parties, where you meet, and often bed, girls of widely varied hues and sizes. Wife? Kids? House? Are you kidding?
Not so long ago, the average mid-twentysomething had achieved most of adulthood's milestones – high school degree, financial independence, marriage and children. These days, he lingers – happily – in a new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. Decades in unfolding, this limbo may not seem like news to many, but in fact it is to the early 21st century what adolescence was to the early 20th: a momentous sociological development of profound economic and cultural import.
It's time to state what is now obvious to legions of frustrated young women: The limbo doesn't bring out the best in young men.
With women, you could argue that adulthood is in fact emergent. Single women in their 20s and early 30s are joining an international New Girl Order, hyper-achieving in both school and an increasingly female-friendly workplace, while packing leisure hours with shopping, traveling and dining with friends. Single young males, or SYMs, by contrast, often seem to hang out in a playground of drinking, hooking up, playing Halo 3 and, in many cases, underachieving. With them, adulthood looks as though it's receding.
Freud famously asked: "What do women want?" Notice that he didn't ask what men wanted – perhaps he thought he'd figured that one out. But that's a question that ad people, media execs and cultural entrepreneurs have pondered a lot in recent years. They're particularly interested in single young men, for two reasons: There are a lot more of them than before, and they tend to have some extra change.
Consider: In 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively. And the percentage of young guys tying the knot is declining as you read this. Census Bureau data show that the median age of marriage among men rose from 26.8 in 2000 to 27.5 in 2006 – a dramatic demographic shift for such a short time period.
That adds up to tens of millions more young men blissfully free of mortgages, wives and child-care bills. Historically, marketers have found this group an "elusive audience" – the phrase is permanently affixed to "men between 18 and 34" in adspeak – largely immune to the pleasures of magazines and television, as well as to shopping expeditions for the products advertised there.
A signal cultural moment came in April 1997, when Maxim, a popular British "lad magazine," hit American shores. Maxim plastered covers and features with pouty-lipped, tousled-haired pinups in lacy underwear and, in case that didn't do the trick, block-lettered promises of sex! lust! naughty! And it worked.
What really set Maxim apart from other men's mags was its voice. It was the sound of guys hanging around the Animal House living room. Maxim asked the SYM what he wanted and learned that he didn't want to grow up. And now the Maxim child-man voice has gone mainstream. You're that 26-year-old who wants sophomoric fun and macho action? Now the culture has a groaning table of entertainment with your name on it.
That sound you hear is women not laughing. Oh, some women get a kick out of child-men and their frat/fart jokes. But for many, the child-man is either an irritating mystery or a source of heartbreak. In contemporary female writing and conversation, the words "immature" and "men" seem united in perpetuity.
Naturally, women wonder: How did this perverse creature come to be? The most prevalent theory comes from feminist-influenced academics and cultural critics, who view dude media as symptoms of backlash, a masculinity crisis. Men feel threatened by female empowerment, these thinkers argue, and in their anxiety, they cling to outdated roles.
Insofar as the new guy media reflect a backlash against feminism, they're part of the much larger story of men's long, uneasy relationship with bourgeois order. In A Man's Place, historian John Tosh locates male resistance to bourgeois domesticity in the early 19th century, when middle-class expectations for men began to shift away from the patriarchal aloofness of the bad old days.
Under the newer bourgeois regime, the home was to be a haven in a heartless world, in which affection and intimacy were guiding virtues. But in Mr. Tosh's telling, it didn't take long before men vented frustrations with bourgeois domestication: They went looking for excitement and male camaraderie in empire building, in adventure novels and in going to "the club."
By the early 20th century, the emerging mass market in the U.S. offered new outlets for the virile urges that sat awkwardly in the bourgeois parlor; hence titles like Field & Stream and Man's Adventure, as well as steamier fare like Escapade and Caper . When television sets came on the market in the late 1940s, it was the airing of heavyweight fights and football games that led Dad to make the big purchase; to this day, sports events – the battlefield made civilized – glue him to the Barcalounger when he should be folding the laundry.
But this history suggests an uncomfortable fact about the new SYM: He's immature because he can be. We can argue endlessly about whether "masculinity" is natural or constructed – whether men are innately promiscuous, restless and slobby or socialized to be that way – but there's no denying the lesson of today's media marketplace: Give young men a choice between serious drama on the one hand, and Victoria's Secret models, battling cyborgs, exploding toilets and the NFL on the other, and it's the models, cyborgs, toilets and football by a mile.
For whatever reason, adolescence appears to be the young man's default state, proving what anthropologists have discovered in cultures everywhere: It is marriage and children that turn boys into men. Now that the SYM can put off family into the hazily distant future, he can – and will – try to stay a child-man. Not only is no one asking that today's twenty- or thirtysomething become a responsible husband and father – that is, grow up – but a freewheeling marketplace gives him everything he needs to settle down in pig's heaven indefinitely.
Now, you could argue that the motley crew of Maxim, Comedy Central and Halo 3 aren't much to worry about, that extended adolescence is what the word implies: a temporary stage. Most guys have lots of other things going on and will eventually settle down. Men know the difference between entertainment and real life. At any rate, like gravity, growing up happens; nature has rules.
That's certainly a hope driving the sharpest of recent child-man entertainments, Judd Apatow's hit movie Knocked Up. What sets Knocked Up apart from, say, Old School, is that it invites the audience to enjoy the SYM's immaturity even while insisting on its feebleness. The potheaded 23-year-old Ben Stone accidentally impregnates Alison, a gorgeous stranger he was lucky enough to score at a bar. He is clueless about what to do when she decides to have the baby, not because he's a "badass" – actually, he has a big heart – but because he dwells among social retards. In the end, though, Ben understands that he needs to grow up. He gets a job and an apartment and learns to love Alison and the baby. This is a comedy, after all.
The important question that Mr. Apatow's comedy deals with only obliquely is what extended living as a child-man does to a guy – and to the women he collides with along the way.
For the problem with child-men is that they're not very promising husbands and fathers. They suffer from a proverbial "fear of commitment," another way of saying that they can't stand to think of themselves as permanently attached to one woman. Sure, they have girlfriends; many are even willing to move in with them. But cohabiting can be just another Peter Pan delaying tactic. Women tend to see cohabiting as a potential path to marriage; men view it as another place to hang out or, as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead observes in Why There Are No Good Men Left, a way to "get the benefits of a wife without shouldering the reciprocal obligations of a husband."
And here's what may be the deepest existential problem with the child-man – a tendency to avoid not just marriage but any deep attachments. This is British writer Nick Hornby's central insight in his novel About a Boy. The book's anti-hero, Will, is an SYM whose life is as empty of passion as of responsibility. He has no self apart from pop-culture effluvia, a fact that the author symbolizes by having the jobless 36-year-old live off the residuals of a popular Christmas song written by his late father. Mr. Hornby shows how the media-saturated limbo of contemporary guyhood makes it easy to fill your days without actually doing anything.
Will's unemployment is part of a more general passionlessness. To pick up women, for instance, he pretends to have a son and joins a single-parent organization; the plight of the single mothers means nothing to him. For Will, women are simply fleshy devices that dispense sex, and sex is just another form of entertainment, a "fantastic carnal alternative to drink, drugs and a great night out, but nothing much more than that."
The superficiality, indolence and passionlessness evoked in Mr. Hornby's novels haven't triggered any kind of cultural transformation. The SYM doesn't read much, remember, and he certainly doesn't read anything prescribing personal transformation. The child-man may be into self-mockery; self-reflection is something else entirely.
That's too bad. Young men especially need a culture that can help them define worthy aspirations.
Adults don't emerge. They're made.
Original Source: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/points/stories/DN-hymowitz_27edi.ART0.State.Edition1.378ca5b.html