Sunday, February 20, 2011

Where have the good men gone?

Where Have The Good Men Gone?

Kay S. Hymowitz argues that too many men in their 20s are living in a new kind of extended adolescence.

[Review cover] Erin Patrice O'Brien for The Wall Street Journal
Not so long ago, the average American man in his 20s had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage and children. Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This "pre-adulthood" has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it's time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn't bring out the best in men.
Between his lack of responsibilities and an entertainment media devoted to his every pleasure, today's young man has no reason to grow up, says author Kay Hymowitz. She discusses her book, "Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys."
"We are sick of hooking up with guys," writes the comedian Julie Klausner, author of a touchingly funny 2010 book, "I Don't Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters and Other Guys I've Dated." What Ms. Klausner means by "guys" is males who are not boys or men but something in between. "Guys talk about 'Star Wars' like it's not a movie made for people half their age; a guy's idea of a perfect night is a hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends.... They are more like the kids we babysat than the dads who drove us home." One female reviewer of Ms. Kausner's book wrote, "I had to stop several times while reading and think: Wait, did I date this same guy?"
For most of us, the cultural habitat of pre-adulthood no longer seems noteworthy. After all, popular culture has been crowded with pre-adults for almost two decades. Hollywood started the affair in the early 1990s with movies like "Singles," "Reality Bites," "Single White Female" and "Swingers." Television soon deepened the relationship, giving us the agreeable company of Monica, Joey, Rachel and Ross; Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer; Carrie, Miranda, et al.
But for all its familiarity, pre-adulthood represents a momentous sociological development. It's no exaggeration to say that having large numbers of single young men and women living independently, while also having enough disposable income to avoid ever messing up their kitchens, is something entirely new in human experience. Yes, at other points in Western history young people have waited well into their 20s to marry, and yes, office girls and bachelor lawyers have been working and finding amusement in cities for more than a century. But their numbers and their money supply were always relatively small. Today's pre-adults are a different matter. They are a major demographic event.
What also makes pre-adulthood something new is its radical reversal of the sexual hierarchy. Among pre-adults, women are the first sex. They graduate from college in greater numbers (among Americans ages 25 to 34, 34% of women now have a bachelor's degree but just 27% of men), and they have higher GPAs. As most professors tell it, they also have more confidence and drive. These strengths carry women through their 20s, when they are more likely than men to be in grad school and making strides in the workplace. In a number of cities, they are even out-earning their brothers and boyfriends.
Still, for these women, one key question won't go away: Where have the good men gone? Their male peers often come across as aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers—a gender gap neatly crystallized by the director Judd Apatow in his hit 2007 movie "Knocked Up." The story's hero is 23-year-old Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), who has a drunken fling with Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl) and gets her pregnant. Ben lives in a Los Angeles crash pad with a group of grubby friends who spend their days playing videogames, smoking pot and unsuccessfully planning to launch a porn website. Allison, by contrast, is on her way up as a television reporter and lives in a neatly kept apartment with what appear to be clean sheets and towels. Once she decides to have the baby, she figures out what needs to be done and does it. Ben can only stumble his way toward being a responsible grownup.
So where did these pre-adults come from? You might assume that their appearance is a result of spoiled 24-year-olds trying to prolong the campus drinking and hook-up scene while exploiting the largesse of mom and dad. But the causes run deeper than that. Beginning in the 1980s, the economic advantage of higher education—the "college premium"—began to increase dramatically. Between 1960 and 2000, the percentage of younger adults enrolled in college or graduate school more than doubled. In the "knowledge economy," good jobs go to those with degrees. And degrees take years.
Getty Images
WHY GROW UP? Men in their 20s now have an array of toys and distractions at their disposal, from videogames and sports bars to 'lad' magazines like Maxim, which makes Playboy look like Camus.

Another factor in the lengthening of the road to adulthood is our increasingly labyrinthine labor market. The past decades' economic expansion and the digital revolution have transformed the high-end labor market into a fierce competition for the most stimulating, creative and glamorous jobs. Fields that attract ambitious young men and women often require years of moving between school and internships, between internships and jobs, laterally and horizontally between jobs, and between cities in the U.S. and abroad. The knowledge economy gives the educated young an unprecedented opportunity to think about work in personal terms. They are looking not just for jobs but for "careers," work in which they can exercise their talents and express their deepest passions. They expect their careers to give shape to their identity. For today's pre-adults, "what you do" is almost synonymous with "who you are," and starting a family is seldom part of the picture.
Pre-adulthood can be compared to adolescence, an idea invented in the mid-20th century as American teenagers were herded away from the fields and the workplace and into that new institution, the high school. For a long time, the poor and recent immigrants were not part of adolescent life; they went straight to work, since their families couldn't afford the lost labor and income. But the country had grown rich enough to carve out space and time to create a more highly educated citizenry and work force. Teenagers quickly became a marketing and cultural phenomenon. They also earned their own psychological profile. One of the most influential of the psychologists of adolescence was Erik Erikson, who described the stage as a "moratorium," a limbo between childhood and adulthood characterized by role confusion, emotional turmoil and identity conflict.
Like adolescents in the 20th century, today's pre-adults have been wait-listed for adulthood. Marketers and culture creators help to promote pre-adulthood as a lifestyle. And like adolescence, pre-adulthood is a class-based social phenomenon, reserved for the relatively well-to-do. Those who don't get a four-year college degree are not in a position to compete for the more satisfying jobs of the knowledge economy.

But pre-adults differ in one major respect from adolescents. They write their own biographies, and they do it from scratch. Sociologists use the term "life script" to describe a particular society's ordering of life's large events and stages. Though such scripts vary across cultures, the archetypal plot is deeply rooted in our biological nature. The invention of adolescence did not change the large Roman numerals of the American script. Adults continued to be those who took over the primary tasks of the economy and culture. For women, the central task usually involved the day-to-day rearing of the next generation; for men, it involved protecting and providing for their wives and children. If you followed the script, you became an adult, a temporary custodian of the social order until your own old age and demise.
Unlike adolescents, however, pre-adults don't know what is supposed to come next. For them, marriage and parenthood come in many forms, or can be skipped altogether. In 1970, just 16% of Americans ages 25 to 29 had never been married; today that's true of an astonishing 55% of the age group. In the U.S., the mean age at first marriage has been climbing toward 30 (a point past which it has already gone in much of Europe). It is no wonder that so many young Americans suffer through a "quarter-life crisis," a period of depression and worry over their future.
Given the rigors of contemporary career-building, pre-adults who do marry and start families do so later than ever before in human history. Husbands, wives and children are a drag on the footloose life required for the early career track and identity search. Pre-adulthood has also confounded the primordial search for a mate. It has delayed a stable sense of identity, dramatically expanded the pool of possible spouses, mystified courtship routines and helped to throw into doubt the very meaning of marriage. In 1970, to cite just one of many numbers proving the point, nearly seven in 10 25-year-olds were married; by 2000, only one-third had reached that milestone.
American men have been struggling with finding an acceptable adult identity since at least the mid-19th century. We often hear about the miseries of women confined to the domestic sphere once men began to work in offices and factories away from home. But it seems that men didn't much like the arrangement either. They balked at the stuffy propriety of the bourgeois parlor, as they did later at the banal activities of the suburban living room. They turned to hobbies and adventures, like hunting and fishing. At midcentury, fathers who at first had refused to put down the money to buy those newfangled televisions changed their minds when the networks began broadcasting boxing matches and baseball games. The arrival of Playboy in the 1950s seemed like the ultimate protest against male domestication; think of the refusal implied by the magazine's title alone.
In his disregard for domestic life, the playboy was prologue for today's pre-adult male. Unlike the playboy with his jazz and art-filled pad, however, our boy rebel is a creature of the animal house. In the 1990s, Maxim, the rude, lewd and hugely popular "lad" magazine arrived from England. Its philosophy and tone were so juvenile, so entirely undomesticated, that it made Playboy look like Camus.
At the same time, young men were tuning in to cable channels like Comedy Central, the Cartoon Network and Spike, whose shows reflected the adolescent male preferences of its targeted male audiences. They watched movies with overgrown boy actors like Steve Carell, Luke and Owen Wilson, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Will Farrell and Seth Rogen, cheering their awesome car crashes, fart jokes, breast and crotch shots, beer pong competitions and other frat-boy pranks. Americans had always struck foreigners as youthful, even childlike, in their energy and optimism. But this was too much.

What explains this puerile shallowness? I see it as an expression of our cultural uncertainty about the social role of men. It's been an almost universal rule of civilization that girls became women simply by reaching physical maturity, but boys had to pass a test. They needed to demonstrate courage, physical prowess or mastery of the necessary skills. The goal was to prove their competence as protectors and providers. Today, however, with women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional, and the qualities of character men once needed to play their roles—fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity—are obsolete, even a little embarrassing.
Today's pre-adult male is like an actor in a drama in which he only knows what he shouldn't say. He has to compete in a fierce job market, but he can't act too bossy or self-confident. He should be sensitive but not paternalistic, smart but not cocky. To deepen his predicament, because he is single, his advisers and confidants are generally undomesticated guys just like him.
Single men have never been civilization's most responsible actors; they continue to be more troubled and less successful than men who deliberately choose to become husbands and fathers. So we can be disgusted if some of them continue to live in rooms decorated with "Star Wars" posters and crushed beer cans and to treat women like disposable estrogen toys, but we shouldn't be surprised.
Relatively affluent, free of family responsibilities, and entertained by an array of media devoted to his every pleasure, the single young man can live in pig heaven—and often does. Women put up with him for a while, but then in fear and disgust either give up on any idea of a husband and kids or just go to a sperm bank and get the DNA without the troublesome man. But these rational choices on the part of women only serve to legitimize men's attachment to the sand box. Why should they grow up? No one needs them anyway. There's nothing they have to do.
They might as well just have another beer.
—Adapted from "Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys" by Kay S. Hymowitz, to be published by Basic Books on March 1. Copyright © by Kay S. Hymowitz. Printed by arrangement with Basic Books.

Two Cheers for the Maligned Slacker Dude

Thanks to the movie "Knocked Up," the actor Seth Rogen became the chubby, curly-haired face of male arrested development and an unexpected flashpoint in the war of the sexes. A good percentage of American opinion was apoplectic at the notion that a pot-smoking, ambition-free loser like Mr. Rogen's slacker antihero would even hook up with a hot, put-together young woman like the television journalist played by Katherine Heigl, let alone agree to raise a child with her.
No one would suggest that the antihero of "Knocked Up" is the apogee of masculinity, but he does possess an admirable quality shared by many members of his generation: He creates. He creates because he's too young and naïve to realize that the odds are stacked against him. He's also too green to realize that he's creating something (a database of celebrity nudity) that has already been created (a website called Mr. Skin), but that doesn't change the fact that he's showing real initiative.
MEN AT WORK. From left to right, Bebo co-founder Michael Birch, Skype co-founder Niklas Zennstrom, YouTube cofounder Chad Hurley, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and Directi co-founder Divyank Turakhia, at an event last year.

Men in their late teens and 20s have historically accomplished great things. They have started record labels and newspapers and zines and social networking sites that help other men in their teens and late 20s accomplish great things. It's telling that the most talked-about businessman in the world right now isn't Warren Buffett or Bill Gates—it's Mark Zuckerberg, a 26-year-old, scruffily dressed Jewish kid who started a cultural revolution in his dorm room and inspired a movie that just may win the Oscar for best picture.
Mr. Zuckerberg isn't the only 20-something achiever who has changed the world at an age when our fathers and grandfathers were still trying to scramble up the first few rungs of the corporate ladder. In 2005, a trio of 20-something PayPal employees named Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim were too young and green to realize that you can't start putting television shows and movies and seemingly every piece of filmed entertainment from the past century online just because you think it'd be cool to share, say, a clip of Johnny Cash playing a Jimmie Rodgers number alongside Louis Armstrong.
Yet Messrs. Chen, Hurley and Karim went ahead and started YouTube so that they could share the media they loved with the entire world. YouTube proved a powerful catalyst for creativity; it gave the world Justin Bieber (but don't hold that against it!) but also improbable success stories like the Lonely Island, a comedy troupe of three guys in their 20s who parlayed making goofy homemade videos with their buddies into hit albums and gigs on "Saturday Night Live" (a show that has made television history by relying on the comic energy of several generations of ambitious 20-somethings).
On a more personal note, in the late 1980s a group of slackers in Madison, Wis., didn't know that sophisticated satire was supposed to be the exclusive domain of Harvard Lampoon types, not of depressive college dropouts, and they founded the Onion. A decade later, as a 22-year-old college junior, I was (thankfully) too naïve to realize I had no business being the paper's first head entertainment writer.
It's remarkable what you can achieve when you're too young to realize your limitations, or even to know that limitations exist. Men who put off marriage and fatherhood and home ownership until their 30s might be immersing themselves in work or they might be trying to extend the college experience as long as possible. Is that necessarily a bad thing? People do a whole lot more in college than down shots and hit bongs. College is also a place for experimentation, for reflection, for figuring out who you are and what you want to do with your life. Those kinds of issues and questions shouldn't end with college graduation.
If men are getting married and having children later than at any time in human history that's probably because men in their 30s are almost invariably better prepared to tackle the responsibilities of adulthood than men in their 20s. Do we really want more generations of 23-year-old men who drink themselves to sleep every night dreaming about what they might have done if they hadn't gotten married and had kids right out of school? Do we want to repeat the mistakes of our fathers or learn from them?
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter foster a certain level of narcissism. They make each of us the star of our own little universe and create the illusion that the world is interested in what we have to say. The Holy Trinity of social networking titans reflects the self-absorption of a generation that increasingly defines itself by the media it consumes.
We're part of a generation that is not content to passively consume culture. We're creators: of memes, hashtags, Twitter one-liners and homemade videos that take the pop culture of our collective past and recreate it in our own image. Marriage and parenting and mortgages can wait; we're all about living in the sacred present tense and chronicling its key moments 140 characters at a time.
So you can scoff and snicker all you like at the shaggy, hangdog 27-year-old next door dressed in a baggy college sweatshirt and cargo shorts, taking empty pizza boxes and beer bottles to the dumpster. He could be a loser just trying to extend his adolescence indefinitely—or he might just be getting ready to change the world with what he creates in his unkempt guy lair.
—Mr. Rabin is the head writer of A.V. Club, the entertainment section of the Onion, and the author of "My Year of Flops" and "The Big Rewind."

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