lot of people seem to be worried about me these days. Well, not me specifically, but my generation, and my demographic: twenty- and thirtysomething middle-class men. In a January essay in City Journal, editor Kay Hymowitz dubbed us “child-men,” and said that were “not very promising husbands and fathers.” The same month, in an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News, conservative columnist Rod Dreher wrote that we are “conscious only of [our] desires and the impulse to fulfill them.” Then this past May, A. O. Scott of the New York Times theorized that in todays America, “a man is, at last, a triumphant boy, with access to money, sex and freedom but without the sad grown-up ballast of duty and compromise.” My generation, these critics say, have failed to make, or even acknowledge, their passage into adulthood, choosing instead to live in a state of perpetual teendom. Women are wondering where all the menand not just the good oneshave gone.
In the midst of this barrage, a professor of history at Pennsylvania State University named Gary Cross fires yet another missile: Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity, a 328-page, heavily endnoted attempt to explain how, historically, todays young man came to be. Cross sees big trouble in a number of facts: that men are getting married later in life (the average age at which men first marry is now twenty-seven); that 55 percent of American men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four still live at home with their parents; that more children are growing up without fathers in their homes; and that the culture of what he calls “boy-men” is an “unalloyed pursuit of sensual intensity.” This is a pretty broad lament, but its not delivered crankilytheres not much nostalgia for the social structures of the 1950s in Crosss writingand so, for someone like me, its a palatable way to see what everyones so upset about.
Crosss history starts with the end of World War II, and a generation of men returning home to build both families and a country. Whatever else you want to say about these men, he says, they had a model: Judge Hardy, the father from the “Andy Hardy” movies. It was understood, Cross writes, that a man was to be firm, responsible, sober, and wise.
But things were not so simple in the real world, where, Cross explains, socioeconomic changes cast an obscuring shadow over the role of the father: in leaving the family farm or store for the factory or office, men had effectively ceded domain over the home to women. Rather than daily fathering, a mans household role became simply to provide. Some contemporary parenting experts recommended that fathers “pal” with their children during their time off; others insisted that men focus on discipline (“Wait until your father gets home!”). But nurturing, character building, and role modeling were lost in any case, and what it meant to be a mature man became unclear.
The children raised in this confusion, of course, were the baby boomers. This is Crosss generation, and he blames it for much of what came next. As boomer boys were becoming men, American male identity was being thrown into question, by civil rights, womens rights, and the shifting role of war in society. Some boomers spoke of creating a “new man” to accommodate these changes. The old man was indeed cast aside, and Judge Hardy thrown out the window. But he was replaced not by an updated, idealized father, but by the likes of Archie Bunkera patriarchal punch lineand the tenets of maturity were laid to waste by the counterculture. Looking back at some of that eras political activism, Cross decides that his generation created “not so much a New Man as an unhinged boy.”
No viable new definition of manhood was ever formed. And as the boomers grew older, they began to panic, obsessing over their lost youth and trying to preserve it with diets, spa treatments, and a culture of nostalgia. Cross has a strong passage about Viagra, and how a decline in sexual potency, understood by previous generations as a natural biological development, suddenly became a “dysfunction.” The norms of youth needed to be preserved at all ages.
And so the boomers begat the boy-men. Today, Cross says, the culture of men and the culture of boys have merged. Males who should be behaving like adults read Maxim, watch South Park, and ride roller-
coasters. Two out of three male college students still play what Cross terms “childrens and teens games”video games such as EverQuest and Sporeeven though “part of the process of growing up is shunning the things of childhood.” (Cross produces a quote from a man on an EverQuest newsgroup who claims, “I found dumping the women is the easiest way to find time to play Sacrifices are needed if you want to be high-level.”) The present generations sense of style
metrosexuality, according to Cross
“suggests the boy-man” as well, obsessed as it is with remaining young.
All of these habits, Cross says, are the trappings of men who, in their own lives, choose indulgence over restraint, and entertainment over responsibility. While Cross balks at defining “maturity” concretely, he does argue that societys old “markers of male maturity” were rejected without ever being replacedthat is, we have no models for men, and so men remain boys. He concludes that we need a new definition of manhoodnot Judge Hardy, necessarily, but a new New Man in keeping with todays social and economic realities. He offers a few general suggestions.
ets first consider the defining characteristics of Crosss “boy-man” phenomenon, and ask which of them truly constitute a problem. Then we can talk about new definitions.
Start with pop culture, and the dreaded video game. Much of critics trouble with video games seems to stem from the word “game,” and its association with children. I myself dont play video games, but it seems to me a bit off to indict them as childlike just because children play them. Video games, after all, have evolved in recent years into a full-fledged form of media, like books or movies (and they do grow in complexity as the user gets older). The reason men of previous generations didnt play them is because they didnt exist.
You might sayas Cross doesthat the content of many young mens video games is a problem. Cross also indicts the content of young mens preferred TV, magazines, and movies as “puerile.” Although there may be some misunderstandings hereSouth Park, for instance, is about eight-year-olds, but it addresses social and political subjectstheres also some merit to the case that my generations preference in media of all kinds tends toward the juvenile. The prominence of subjects like sex and slapstick in popular culture, however, suggests to me nothing so much as a shift in disposable income and the rise of demographic targeting in media, combined with a large-scale change in the social acceptance of sex (for which we can thank the boomers). I suspect that the cohort of twentysomething males would have gone in for sex in the 1950s, toothey went right in for Playboyhad it been more accessible in the culture at large. While some people may object to the shift thats occurred, I dont think it represents some great devolution of the American male in relation to his predecessorsthat is, unless something has gone wrong with the way men actually live their lives.
Which brings us to the way men live their lives: the marriages that happen later and later; the years living in parents basements; the hanging out in bars; the careless hook-ups; and the women who ask themselves, “Where have all the men gone?”
These aggrieved heterosexual women, cited by both Men to Boys and Hymowitzs
City Journal article, make an interesting departure point, because Im not sure their concern is being understood correctly. Among the women in my peer group, I know of a few who are currently eager to get married. But Im twenty-seven. When I was twenty-two, I dont think I knew any; women of my acquaintance were no more ready to jump into family life than the men were. (Indeed, unsurprisingly, the average age of womens first marriage has risen too.) Ill concede that many women seem to be ready for marriage earlier than men are, and its possible that when Im thirty Ill know even more female peers who are growing restless. But Im sure Ill also know some who are glad they didnt marry the dude they were dating at twenty-four. Because, to the extent that women really are frustrated with men (and neither Cross nor Hymowitz provide statistics on this), it may be due to the fact that a lot of men are assholes, and a lot of men always have been. In the old days, women would have just been stuck married to them.
The reality is that theres clearly a new “normal” in the lives of many young people, men and women both, and it involves a life stage during which people can be romantically involved and sexually active but not ready to settle down or have kids. This is partly a product of changing gender roles and womens economic independence; its also partly a product of the “creative economy,” and the fact that middle-class college graduates can spend years casting around in different jobs before settling on a career (and who wants to be responsible for a family before he has a career?). This not only doesnt strike me as bad, it seems like it might be good. Sure, theres some awkwardness to itsome broken hearts, some confusion as people cross romantic paths with different expectations. And there are some ambiguities, as things happen out of traditional order: the weekend I began reading Crosss book, for instance, I attended a “baby bachelor party” for an unmarried friend who was about to have a child with his live-in girlfriend (the couple is now engaged). But as the blogger Dana Goldstein noted, responding to a column by David Brooks on what he dubs the “Odyssey years,” later marriages carry a lower risk of eventual divorce. “Today,” Goldstein wrote, “people marry later because its a better idea to do so. Both partners get a chance to pursue education, financial stability, and sexual confidenceall things that improve ones chances of entering into a stable marriage for life.” The intervening years may even help cut down on midlife crises down the road.
here is one trend Cross identifies that is undeniably a problem: the abdication of fathers. Since 1960, the number of children living in fatherless homes has tripled. And while not every child needs to be raised by a happily married, cohabitating heterosexual couple, it is trueIm told by every available source, anecdotal and otherwisethat parenting is hard. It involves a lot of logistical tasks, requires a lot of wisdom, and will go better, in many if not most cases, if a second parent is around to share in those duties.
Is there any relationship between increased rates of fatherlessness and the fact that many people now spend their twenties in an unsettled state? Maybe. Fatherlessness is at least in part a result of the economic viability of single motherhood. More importantly, many absentee fathers dont actually belong to the demographic Cross is examining. He identifies his “boy-man” as middle class, and many absentee fathers are poora distinction he misses completely. Still, its possible that, surrounded by peers who arent parenting and who are accustomed to living without a sense of responsibility to others, some percentage of middle-class men will misinterpret social expectations and abjure their fathering duties, either through outright abandonment or malign indifference.
But it also stands to reason that children benefit from the fact that their fathers got married later in life. The recent college graduates whom Cross wishes were acting more like grown-ups are really pretty young. When I was twenty-two, my friends and I were still a roaring hormonal mess, half-formed emotionally and driven to distraction by an obsession with self-definition. Its only now, in the second half of my twenties, that Im starting to see the edge come off my peers as they settle into themselves, like puppies that stop chewing furniture and pulling on the leash.
Toward the end of Men to Boys, Cross says that we need to “[rethink] male maturity.” Certainly, we should rethink how society treats maturity with regard to parenting. A recent study by sociologist Robin Simon of Florida State University found that childless adults, by and large, are more content than people with kidsa sign that we should try to improve incentives and support for parenting (more worksite daycare, say) while also increasing the penalties for and taboos against parental abdication. Other than that, its true that men are often immature in any number of ways, including being violent, driving aggressively, allowing their egos to rule them, and cheating at pickup basketball. But these behaviors dont strike me as a generational problem, and have little to do with laughing at Adam Sandler or playing video games. Missives about how these actions signal a major social problem read a lot to me like a parent (but not my parents!) complaining that his child has embraced a culture he himself just doesnt understand.
To be sure, my generation is in trouble. Weve come of age in the midst of a housing crisis, in a nation with declining resources, massive deficits, and reduced standing in the world. To arguments like Crosss, we should just say: Sir, we appreciate your concern, but were comfortable with our model of adulthood. Your generation made better role models than you think! Now, if you could just focus on leaving us a healthy country, wed be even further in your debt.
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