View Full Version : U.S. Issues Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity

09-24-2008, 09:32 PM

Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity
By Gary Cross

Mr. Cross is Distinguished Professor of Modern History, Pennsylvania State University.

The old always seem to blame the young for the downfall of civilization. So readers under 40 might be skeptical when I, a member of the “senior class” of Baby Boomers (born in 1946), claim that markers of male maturity have declined sharply in the last 20 years. Who am I to complain? Many from my generation rejected the values of their parents, and vowed in the 60s to never trust anyone over 30. But I still think it’s fair to say today there is no rush into maturity if that can be measured by an early embrace of family responsibility.

Young men, once considered ineffectual or of “doubtful” sexuality if they were unmarried at 25, now marry at 27 on the average. While as recently as 1980, only six percent of men reached their early 40s without marrying (compared to five percent of women), by 2004, that percentage had increased to 16.5 percent of men (and 12.5 percent of women). Even more telling, 55 percent of American men aged 18 to 24 live with their parents and 13 percent between 25 to 34 years of age still live at home, compared to only eight percent of women.

Of course, extended education, increased cost of housing, and just greater caution in view of their parent’s frequent failed marriages may explain a lot why young men (and women) “fail to launch” into family responsibility. But, as singles, ensconced within male or youth peer cultures, young men have plenty of time and opportunity to live the life of the boy-man. Sitcoms like Seinfeld or Friends mirror the dreamlife if not reality of many singles, especially men. And the on-going popularity of Adam Sandler’s perpetual teenager roles and Howard Stern’s puerile passions say a lot. Think of the difference between Hugh Grant and Cary Grant. Note the hedonistic appeals of Superbowl ads and of Maxim Magazine and the fact that the mean age of video game players has risen to 33 in 2005 (up from 18 in 1997). Generation X men don’t give up playing as they “grow up.” The culture of the boy-men today is less a life-stage than a life-style, less a transition from childhood to adulthood than a choice to live like a teen “forever.”

Despite temptation, I refuse to blame today’s young. They didn’t make the world they live in and react to. Are Baby Boomers at fault then? As one, I admit that we certainly made a fetish of youth (though some of us thought that we would improve on our father’s definition of manhood and become men who related to our children, recognized equality with our partners, and didn’t need macho images of heroism and authority). However, not only did we become “the man” rather than “new men” and sell out (a fact that is hardly surprising), but we did not become our fathers. Instead, we reveled in our status as youth, long after it was gone. We remained in many ways the teenage sons of our fathers, and some of us never gave up rebelling against our elders. And a generation of advertising and popular culture reinforced all this. While we Baby Boomers discarded the traditional markers of maturity and tried to recover our boyhood, our sons’ generation made youth a permanent way of life at least in their leisure.

By contrast, many look back on the World War II generation, Tom Brokaw’s ”Greatest Generation” as models of male maturity. Just contrast George Bush senior with his son. But were those returning warriors such paragons of responsibility and refinement? Think of the Beats on the road, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and his lifelong love of the hotrod, and Hugh Hefner, Playboy, and his “Girls Next Door” (on cable TV). Behind all of this rebellion, what Barbara Ehrenreich once called the “flight from commitment,” was a deep confusion about what a man was supposed to do and be even in those presumably self-assured 1950s. The father may have been glorified as the provider, but at home he had often been reduced to the role of banker and playmate.

And even in the youth of my father’s generation, a culture of the cool was emerging that denied the “coming of age” narrative. The old Tom Swift serials or even the Andy Hardy movies were replaced by superhero comics that offered instead stories of endless youth. The Greatest Generation was the first to collect the toys and cars of their youth. The ideal grown-up of the 1950s and 1960s was hard for even men of that era to live up to. And not a few took pleasure in the romantic quest for intense and varied experience as well as in a cynical disdain for genteel sensibilities. They were the first generation to be “cool,” rebels against bourgeois competition and providership. Ed Roth and Hugh Hefner never grew up and they were proud of it. We see their legacy everywhere in today’s popular culture from the over-the-top smart-ass cynicism of The Family Guy to the self-absorption of Two and a Half Men.

This flight from traditional standards of maturity spans across my sons’ and my father’s generations. Our age has systematically rejected the Victorian patriarch without finding an adequate alternative. The decline of deference, the feminist challenge to patriarchy, and the acceleration of technological change has meant that there is much less of a “pay-off” for male maturity in families and on the job. Much of this is for the good, but in the process some men have abandoned the traditional ideals of paternal responsibility to family, community, and culture without replacing them with new models of “grown-up” behavior. Over time, being a kid has become much more satisfying than it was in the past when the young submitted to elders and did without, while the aged had distinct privileges. Even after men assume adult roles, they became nostalgic for the play of their childhood and youth. Makers of modern consumer and media culture have learned to exploit and even amplify this rejection of past models of maturity and this longing to return to or retain childhood. This makes youth, once a life-stage, into a permanent and highly desirable lifestyle. The result is men and boys play with the same toys and are attracted to the same novelties and celebrities in a culture of intensity. The impact of all this on families, social responsibility, and culture is incalculable. Reversing these trends will not be easy, but it is a responsibility that transcends generation.

09-24-2008, 10:36 PM
Another article with a similar perspective:

Why I Am Leaving Guyland

Peter Pans aren't as happy as they seem.
Tony Dokoupil

It's "booze o'clock" on a recent Thursday night on New York's Fire Island—a rolling, inexact hour when 10 vacationing guys decide to kick off their nightly binge. Between tequila shots and pulls of beer, the sun-baked twentysomethings roar on the deck of their rented beach house, sounding the depths of maledom: sexual conquests, mastery of fire ("I'll grill that potato salad") and escape from the monotony of girlfriends and work. "I like starting things," says one guy, as if to sum up his generation. "Then it gets boring."

The banter may seem like an open dish-session between friends, but masculine law chokes out the sissy stuff. There's scorn when water is used to dilute a whisky, and disbelief when one of the crew suggests dinner that night to celebrate his birthday. "This isn't a friendship trip," chides one of the guys. "We're here to get women." During the week, most of the guys say they've reached their goal—a few more than once.

Once the preserve of whacked-out teens and college slackers, this testosterone-filled landscape is the new normal for American males until what used to be considered creeping middle age, according to the sociologist Michael Kimmel. In his new book, "Guyland," the State University of New York at Stony Brook professor notes that the traditional markers of manhood—leaving home, getting an education, finding a partner, starting work and becoming a father—have moved downfield as the passage from adolescence to adulthood has evolved from "a transitional moment to a whole new stage of life." In 1960, almost 70 percent of men had reached these milestones by the age of 30. Today, less than a third of males that age can say the same.

"What used to be regressive weekends are now whole years in the lives of some guys," Kimmel tells NEWSWEEK. In almost 400 interviews with mainly white, college-educated twentysomethings, he found that the lockstep march to manhood is often interrupted by a debauched and decadelong odyssey, in which youths buddy together in search of new ways to feel like men. Actually, it's more like all the old ways—drinking, smoking, kidding, carousing—turned up a notch in a world where adolescent demonstrations of manhood have replaced the real thing: responsibility. Kimmel's testosterone tract adds to a forest of recent research into protracted adolescents (or "thresholders" and "kidults," as they've also been dubbed) and the reluctance of today's guys to don their fathers' robes—and commitments. They "see grown-up life as such a loss," says Kimmel, explaining why so many guys are content to sit out their 20s in duct-taped beanbag chairs. The trouble is that the very thing they're running from may be the thing they need.

At least, that's what I hope. On the weekend this story goes to print I am getting married in a loft in midtown Manhattan, tying the knot at 27—the national average for guys. But by the way some of my single male friends reacted, you'd think I was appearing on an episode of "Engaged and Underage." "Maybe you're making a big mistake," said one buddy when I told him of the engagement. A 27-year-old technology consultant living in New York, he can't remember the names of the women he's slept with (let alone the number), and gives them nicknames like "Biff," "Dino" and "the Little Maniac." I'm happy to take in the night with him every few weeks, but still a little uncomfortable belting out "Sweet Caroline" to a bar full of people, and tickled pink when I'm back home with my girlfriend—soon to be wife. Guyland is not without its charms, but it pales next to what I have known with her over the past three years.

A bad attitude about marriage is not the only thing that's holding these guys back. A series of social and economic reversals are making it harder than ever to climb the ladder of adulthood. Since 1971, annual salaries for males 25 to 34 with full-time jobs have plummeted almost 20 percent, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. At the same time, women have crashed just about all the old male haunts, and are showing some signs of outpacing their husbands and boyfriends as breadwinners and heads of family, at least in urban centers. Last year, researchers at Queens College in New York determined that women between 21 and 30 in at least five major cities, including Dallas, Chicago and New York, have not only made up the wage gap since 1970—they now earn upwards of 15 percent more than their male counterparts. As a result, many men feel redundant.

Today's guys are perhaps the first downwardly mobile—and endlessly adolescent—generation of men in U.S. history. They're also among the most distraught—men between the ages of 16 and 26 have the highest suicide rate for any group except men above 70—and socially isolated, despite their image as a band of backslapping buddies. According to the General Social Survey, a highly regarded decadeslong University of Chicago project to map changes in American culture, twentysomething guys are bowling alone when compared with the rest of society. They are less likely to read a newspaper, attend church, vote for president or believe that people are basically trustworthy, helpful and fair. Meanwhile, saddled with an average of $20,000 in student debt and reared with a sense of entitlement that stops them from taking any old job, the percentage of 26-year-olds living with their parents has nearly doubled since 1970, from 11 to 20 percent, according to economist Bob Schoeni's research with the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan.

The failure to launch is perhaps no surprise given the onslaught of messages that suggest settling down is tantamount to ripping up one's ticket to the party. To turn on television or see a movie is to find a smorgasbord of regressive adventures for the single man of every stripe. Movies like "Pineapple Express," Judd Apatow's latest celebration of beta male bonding; TV shows like HBO's hypermasculine pal party "Entourage," and beer commercials like Miller Lite's "Man Laws" ads make delayed adulthood seem like a lark—roguish, fun and, most of all, normal. Meanwhile, the denizens of Guyland eat this stuff up, with males 16 to 26 constituting the single most coveted consumer group. As evidence, Kimmel points to the litany of "guysploitation" media, including ever frat-tastic magazines such as Maxim and FHM, and Spike TV, "the first network for men."

The happy family man, on the other hand, is an alien concept in Guyland, and all too scarce in popular culture. Men like me, who actually embrace married life in their 20s, are seen as aberrations—or just a bit odd. According to a study released last month by the Parents Television Council, prime-time broadcast audiences are three times more likely to hear about people having sex with pets, corpses or two other people simultaneously than they are to see a blissed-out married couple between the sheets. If the domestic man does appear, the study finds, the guy who pants in Lamaze class rather than a stranger's bedroom is portrayed as freakish, fuddy-duddy and frequently religious: an uptight Boy Scout in a Peter Pan culture. "Today's prime-time television," the PTC concludes, "seems to be actively seeking to undermine marriage by consistently painting it in a negative light."

But while the glorified Isle of Guy makes many men feel inadequate, its attractions are often illusory—or worse. Binge drinking is shown to cause learning disabilities in lab rats; almost 20 percent of college guys said they would commit rape if they knew they wouldn't be caught, according to a 2005 UCLA study, and fraternity hazing has resulted in at least one reported fatality for each of the last 10 years.

Beyond the practical dangers, the world of twentysomething males can also be an alienating place, where the entrance fee is conformity and the ride is less than advertised. At a waterfront bar on Fire Island, there is gleeful solidarity as the guys chink glasses and catcall en masse to passing women (who resist). But on their own and without their liquid courage, there is also isolation and discontent. A 28-year-old Emory graduate, who declined to be named for fear of ridicule, talked of feeling ashamed of his life, which has led to countless conquests but not the literary success he'd hoped for; he's living at home in New Jersey and working at a hotel front desk in the meantime. Another guy, 26, an Arizona State alum who lives in Tempe, is a coupon-book salesman, but clearly self-conscious: he carries fake business cards touting him as an MTV entertainment executive.

If only all the posturing paid off. College guys believe that 80 percent of their friends are getting laid each weekend, says Kimmel, whose survey of 13,000 kids, mostly 18 to 22 years old, puts the actual figure at closer to 10 percent. After college, he says, the percentages merely get worse.

Meanwhile, the angst associated with adulthood may not be warranted. A raft of recent studies suggest that married men are happier, more sexually satisfied and less likely to end up in the emergency room than their unmarried counterparts. They also earn more, are promoted ahead of their single counterparts and are more likely to own a home.

"Men benefit from just being married, regardless of the quality of the relationship. It makes them healthier, wealthier and more generous with their relatives," says Scott Coltrane, author of "Gender and Families" and dean of the University of Oregon College of Arts and Science. It accelerates men's journey toward stability and security. "In general, those are the things that lead to happiness," he adds.

At least, that's what I am hoping. Ask me in 20 years.


Mr. Kotter
09-24-2008, 11:27 PM
Is this your way of coming out of the closet? NTTAWWT.... :shrug:


09-24-2008, 11:36 PM
Is this your way of coming out of the closet?

Could you explain how these two articles could even remotely suggest that?

09-25-2008, 04:28 PM
I think this is a little overblown.

Yes, it is a problem that people are living with their parents until they're 30.

But I reject the notion that if a guy isn't married and siring children by his late 20s that he's a failed adult. I count an adult as someone who is self-sufficient, a person who is able take care of his or her own essential needs without the support of their family. As long as you're not anybody else’s burden, I don't give a Shanahan's ass when or if you marry or start breeding.

And the idea that 30somethings playing video games is a sign of a generation's lack of maturity is laughable. Video games are an immerging and maturing art form. Anyone who thinks they’re purely kid stuff has never played Bioshock, Portal or Shadow of the Colossus.