'Pre-Adulthood' Separates The Men From The Boys

Author Kay Hymowitz says too many young men are stuck in extended adolescence and putting off the adult responsibilities that once defined "a man." i i

Author Kay Hymowitz says young men are stuck in extended adolescence — putting off the adult responsibilities that once "defined" manhood. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Author Kay Hymowitz says too many young men are stuck in extended adolescence and putting off the adult responsibilities that once defined "a man."

Author Kay Hymowitz says young men are stuck in extended adolescence — putting off the adult responsibilities that once "defined" manhood.

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Once upon a time in America, boys "became men" when they went to war or started a family. Those milestones still hold true for some, but Kay Hymowitz, author of Manning Up: How The Rise Of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, says too many young men today are stuck in a stage of extended adolescence. In the new "pre-adulthood," she argues, young men are choosing video games or reruns on the Cartoon Network over adult responsibilities — namely, marriage.

"There simply never has been this ... large a percentage of single young people with so few family responsibilities and lots of entertainment out there," Hymowitz tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "The idea that men were going to eventually be husbands and fathers really provided a kind of structure ... an understanding of their role within the society."

But with the onset of "pre-adulthood," which Hymowitz dates roughly to the 1990s, "we don't really know what it means to 'man up' anymore. We're in a society that has a lot of confusion about what men are good for."

Men are often criticized for being confident or aggressive, Hymowitz says, but are also chided for being incompetent and foolish. They are told they are important as fathers, but "we also sing the praises of strong single mothers."

The resulting message to young men, says Hymowitz, "is that they're sort of optional to family life. And I think when you tell a whole generation of men [that] we can take them or leave them, you're going to get a rebellion on their part."

Sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, has also documented a shift in the roles and expectations of young men in America. In the 1950s, Kimmel tells Kelly, most people completed the transition to adulthood — finishing school, finding their first job, marrying and having children — "by age 21 or so. ... My mom finished all of those within three months ... as did all of her friends."

But times have changed dramatically, says Kimmel, a professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and he sees simple demographics as the primary driver behind the reluctance of young people to marry before their late 20s.

"My students today ... they're going to live, if demographers are right, into their mid-90s," says Kimmel. "So they look at me and they say, 'Now wait, get married at age 20? I'm not sure I want to be married to the same person for 76 years.' And they have a point."

Young, single adulthood is a "stage of development," says Kimmel. "It's not going away."

Both Kimmel and Hymowitz agree the changing American economy has played a tremendous role in shifting young men's attitudes toward marriage.

"It's much harder to find your way into your first good job," says Hymowitz, and takes longer still to move to the next professional level. "In this new economy young people will take much, much longer to grow up."

But whatever the causes, Hymowitz argues, these shifts ultimately favor men and disadvantage women, who face unique, biological pressures to enter adulthood.

"Although we're living a lot longer, we haven't conquered biology completely," she says. Many women in their early 30s, she argues, find themselves seeking a mate among peers who don't yet have the same priorities.

There is a gap, Hymowitz says, "between biology and pre-adulthood that we still haven't figured out how to negotiate."

Excerpt: 'Manning Up'

Cover of 'Manning Up'
Base Books
Manning Up: How The Rise Of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys
By Kay Hymowitz
Hardcover, 248 pages
Basic Books
List price: $25.99

Where have the good men gone? I'll bet you've heard some version of that question before. Laura Nolan, a commonsensical British woman in her thirties who lived in New York for five years and would like a husband and children but is hardly what you'd call desperate, put it this way: "We have an overload of man-boys — which leaves a generation of single, thirtysomething women who are their natural mates bewildered ...

An odd thing happens to man-boy brains at about the age of 30. Some neural pathway, hitherto well oiled through a diet of normal relationships and an awareness of such terms as 'compromise' and 'I'm sorry,' tunes in to a specific area of the brain labeled 'navel-gazing.'"

Next time she's in New York, Nolan might like to have coffee with Julie Klausner, comedian and author of I Don't Care About Your Band, and one of many similarly disgruntled American women, though their beef is more often with men in their twenties.

"We are sick of hooking up with guys," she writes, and by "guys" she means males who are not boys or men but something else entirely. "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 to hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends. Guys feed you Chipotle and ride their bikes in traffic. They are more like the kids we babysat than the dads who drove us home." One female reviewer of Klausner's touchingly funny book wrote, "I had to stop several times while reading and think: wait, did I date this same guy?"

Not so long ago, average mid-twentysomethings, both male and female, had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: high school diploma, financial independence, marriage, and children.

These days, they hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance.

The limbo — I'll be calling it preadulthood — has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated men I'll be writing about in this book. But it seems about time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: it doesn't tend to bring out the best in men. I know what you're thinking: that description bears no resemblance to your prince of a son/nephew/friend/boyfriend. That may well be true. I've met a few such princes myself. Young men, like everything else in a postmodern world, come in many varieties, and there are numerous counterexamples to the child-man. But at this point, it's looking pretty clear that ten or fifteen years of party-on single life are a good formula for producing navel-gazing, wisecracking childmen rather than unhyphenated, unironic men.

To understand why that is, we need to take a good look at this cultural habitat of preadulthood. Decades in the unfolding, the limbo of the twenty- and early thirtysomething years probably strikes many readers as not especially noteworthy. After all, the media has been crowded with preadults for almost two decades.

Adolescents saturated the cultural imagination from Elvis in the 1950s to the Beatles in the 1960s to John Hughes in the 1980s, but by the 1990s the media jilted the teen for the twentysomething.

Movies started the affair in the early 1990s with such titles as Singles, Reality Bites, Single White Female, and Swingers. Television soon deepened the relationship. Monica, Joey, Rachel, and Ross; Jerry and Elaine; Carrie, Miranda, et al.: these singles were the most popular characters on television in the United States and just about everywhere else on the globe where people own televisions.

But despite its familiar media presence, preadulthood represents a momentous sociological development, much as the appearance of adolescence did in the early twentieth century. It's not exaggerating things to say that large numbers of single, young men and women living independently while also carrying enough disposable income in their wallets to avoid ever messing up their kitchens is something entirely new to human experience. The vast majority of humans have spent their lives as part of families — first, the one created by their own parents, and then soon after that, the one they entered through marriage — for the simple reason that no one (well, almost no one) could survive on their own.

Yes, during other points in Western history, young people waited to marry until their mid- and sometimes even their later twenties (though almost never living independently before they wed), 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 small enough to keep them minor players in both the social ecology and the economy. Pre-adults are a different matter: they are a major demographic event.

What also makes preadulthood something new and big — and what begins to explain why the "Where have the good men gone?" question won't go away — is its radical reversal of the sexual hierarchy. Among preadults, women are the first sex. Women graduate from college in greater numbers than men, with higher grade point averages; more extracurricular experiences, including study abroad; and as most professors tell it, more confidence, drive, and plans for the future. They are aggressively independent; they don't need to rely on any man, that's for sure. These strengths carry them through much of their twenties, when they are more likely to be in grad school and making strides in the workplace, to be buying apartments and otherwise in aspiring mode. In an increasing number of cities, they are even outearning their brothers and boyfriends.

By contrast, men can come across as aging frat boys, maladroit geeks, or unwashed slackers. The gender gap was crystallized — or perhaps caricatured is the better word — by the director Judd Apatow in his hit 2007 movie Knocked Up through his 23-year-old hero Ben Stone and Alison, the woman Ben accidentally impregnates after a drunken meeting at a club. Ben lives in a Los Angeles crash pad with a group of grubby friends who spend their days playing video games, smoking pot, and unsuccessfully planning the launch of their porn website. Alison, though hardly a matron, makes Ben look as if he's still in middle school. She is on her way up as a reporter at E! Entertainment network and lives in an apartment in the guesthouse of her sister's well-appointed home 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. Either under the influence of mind-altering substances or in his natural state of goofball befuddlement, Ben can only stumble his way to responsible adulthood.

Here we have the two sexes of young urban singlehood, male and female, one lazy, crude, and immature, the other put- together, smart, and ambitious. (Think also of Bart and Lisa Simpson, Anthony and Meadow Soprano, and the male and female characters in just about every coed commercial on television.) Skeptics will be quick to object that these are just popular-culture confections, and so they are. But they reflect real trends in the predicament of the sexes in the contemporary world. Articles and books with such titles as "The End of Men," "Are Men Necessary?," The Decline of Males, "The Death of Macho," "Women Will Rule the World," and Is There Anything Good About Men? point toward a growing recognition that men are not thriving in today's cultural and economic environment. Preadulthood, a time of life when the middle-class kids first become independent, when after two decades of high-stakes schooling and helicopter parenting no one is telling them when papers are due or summer vacation starts, when, in short, the future is finally pretty much in their own hands, should be able to cast fresh light on the question of what's the-matter-with-guys-today.

Excerpted from Manning Up: How The Rise Of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys by Kay Hymowitz. Copyright 2011 by Kay Hymowitz. Excerpted by permission from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group.

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