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Sunday, March 20, 2011

'Manning Up' : Has the Rise of Women Turned Men Into Boys?

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Men. Who needs 'em? Colleges don't. Employers don't. Women don't. Even their own parents don't. At least, that's how it feels to a lot of guys, according to prominent social critic Kay Hymowitz's controversial new book, "Manning Up."

And those guys may be right, to an extent. Colleges have infamously lowered admission standards for males, young women in major cities earn over fifteen times more than their male peers, the number of "choice mothers" (single women who choose to have and raise a child on their own) is rapidly rising, and couples who are planning a family report a strong preference for baby girls.

Generation Y, which Hymowitz refers to as "preadults," is poised to take over the world. Or ... make that half of Generation Y. Twenty-something women far outnumber their male counterparts in practically every arena that counts. They may even be better at brushing their teeth. Actually, that's pretty much a given.

So where does all this leave guys?

Sitting around a crowded living room strewn with beer cans, playing Halo 34 with their buddies, obviously. (What? You don't think we'll get to Halo 34?)

In other words, failing to man up. And, strikingly, it may be the first time in history that they've had that luxury.

Kay Hymowitz investigates why. A Wall Street Journal excerpt from the book, titled "Where Have the Good Men Gone?", attracted an enormous number of comments, some of them irate, with many commenters accusing Hymowitz of...um... being mean to men. In her Daily Beast response, Hymowitz explained that she definitely wasn't blaming pre-adult men for being confused. Just look at dating. Young women may be earning more, but they still tend to want the guys to pay. Or maybe they're not exactly sure what they want. He pays on the first date and then we split? He pays on the first two dates and then I offer? We split everything, always? Unless he's annoying. Let's just see how funny and fascinating he is first.

MyDaily couldn't wait to find out what's really going on with 20-somethings. We wanted to learn more about the so-called "child-man" and his world. Because, after all, it's our world, too. And it'd be nice to have some decent guys in it. It turned out there was a lot more to the story:

MyDaily: What inspired you to write this book? Did you expect it to be so controversial?
Kay Hymowitz: I was inspired for three reasons. One, I had three children who were either in their twenties or nearing their twenties, and it seemed that they were confronting a very different culture and economy than I encountered at their age. Two, I was aware that something very new to human experience was happening with women, as in, having women who were more educated, earning more (as single, childless woman are) and by all counts more ambitious than the men who were their peers. Three, I started to wonder about this persona that was so popular in the media; the kinda goofy, schlubby young guy. Who was he appealing to and why was he so prevalent? Why were we getting all these movies with stars like Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler?

About the controversial aspect of it -- I think the original excerpt that appeared in the Wall Street Journal gave an impression of the book as more anti-male than it is.

Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy with the publicity, and I don't mind people arguing about it, as long as I can get my two cents in.

OK, so since they're at the heart of your book, what exactly is a "pre-adult"?
Pre-adults are young, educated, single people between the ages of about 21 and 35, approximately. Sociologists have come to the conclusion that we are witnessing a new life stage. Most of them refer to it as "emerging adulthood." I thought that a better term was "preadulthood."

It's a new stage because people are reaching the usual milestones of adulthood later than they have in the past. And those milestones, at least in this culture, are usually considered to be independent living, marriage, and children. So those things are happening late, but there's something else that's different, which is that we have this enormous group of young people living on their own, usually in the city (because that's where the jobs are), and creating their own subculture. People have married later at other points in history, but what's different is that they were not able to live on their own or with roommates, because they didn't have their own money, and so they had very little social presence.

What is a child-man?
So the child-man is the young guy who finds himself in this new era of preadulthood and doesn't quite feel himself a man, and is of course not a child, but is still very attached to many of his adolescent pleasures, and hangs out a lot with his bros. He's the audience for a lot of the new media that have arisen to entertain him. And I'm referring to Maxim magazine, plenty of cable channels, and characters played by Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler.

I see the child-man as representing a continuum of characters. On the one hand you have the most noxious versions, like Tucker Max (lest we forget or try to pretend that he doesn't actually exist -- he's selling a million copies of his book about drinking, hooking up, and his bathroom exploits). And then we have the nerds and geeks who are just not quite comfortable with women, who are still a little boyish in their relations with the opposite sex. And then you get another type, which is kind of passive or listless. The guy who just isn't sure what he's supposed to be doing next. The best representation of that is a fictional charter created by Benjamin Kunkel in the novel "Indecision." I don't believe the character is completely fictional...
So the child-man can take varied forms.

What are some of the major characteristics of this day and age that make it possible for pre-adults to exist?
I see most of the background for preadulthood as lying in the massive economic changes of the last thirty years. I'm not talking about the recession. I'm talking about the arrival of what economists sometimes call the "knowledge economy." That economy requires a lot more education. It's a particularly dynamic economy, meaning people change jobs a lot, they move between cities, and from country to country. It's difficult to have a wife and children when you're moving that much.

In addition, of course, women are also pursuing careers, and their own careers require a lot of moving and education. If in the past a man had to move, let's say, to England, his wife would simply have come along with him. That's not as likely to happen these days.

In what ways are women "better at" the knowledge economy than men?
Y'know, it's not a scientific fact that men's and women's brains are so different. But -- women have been attracted to the sorts of jobs and activities that are well-represented in the knowledge economy. For instance, there was an enormous expansion of careers in communications and media. Women are very highly represented in television production and journalism. There was a huge expansion of jobs in what some people call the "design economy," because the consumer is much pickier now, and has much more choice about everything from handbags to iPod cases to gourmet potato chips. And all of that has to be packaged, branded , and designed. And there's every reason to think that women are at least men's equals in all these fields and possibly even better.

Do you think there's something biological going on here?
I do suspect that there are differences between men and women. I do think that biology is having an impact on the conflicts that I'm describing.

I think one of the reasons that women seem to be maturing faster, or at least are ready to settle down faster, is that they have a biological clock ticking in their ear. And I think that creates a different dynamic in the scheduling. I can't tell you the number of men who have said, "I'm a guy, I can wait until I'm thirty or forty." Women don't have that luxury and it changes their thinking.

Speaking of biology, what's the deal with dating today? You suggest that everyone is confused about what everyone else wants. And guys, especially, are confused by women's mixed signals.
Women want, and I'm sure to a great extent are getting, a gender neutral workplace. They want to be treated as equals. When it comes to dating, however, it's not as clear what equality means. A lot of women, and men for that matter, hang on to fairly traditional expectations about the rituals of dating. Women still want a guy to ask them out on a date. There was a post on The Frisky called "Ask me out on a damn date," which captures the frustration that some women have. On the other hand you've got men saying, "OK, we're supposed to be equals, why am I supposed to pay for the date?" She might be making more. So there are all these "ghosts of manhood past," as I call them, that are flying around these interactions, where there are no scripts and no rules.

The point being that there used to be these obvious rules. And it made things simpler for everyone.
It's not my goal to revive those rules. I'm merely describing what happens when cultural norms evaporate. Most people will figure it out. They're probably going to be attracted to people from similar backgrounds, and they'll share expectations.

But for many people, it's a source of confusion. Especially for men who are less socially agile, the "beta" guys. They don't have a script and they don't have a clue.

You say that child-men aren't necessarily born out of the supposed "crisis of masculinity", in which men feel threatened by women's progress. Instead, they're kind of just opting out. But they're often ironic about it, or at least aware of what's going on. Am I getting that right? That seems a little encouraging, at least.
That's my reading of it. But my reading of the child-man is that he's not saying that "you goddamn women have to behave the way I want you to." It's more, "I don't get what I'm here for." Remember that they have heard from when they were quite young that fathers were nice to have around but really optional. And they grew up observing that.

This is very, very different from the way most young men have grown into adulthood. And I'm talking historically and cross-culturally. Men knew that they had that social role to play.
And here I'm not just being descriptive, I'm being prescriptive: I think we have, as a culture, been too dismissive of the male role in the family.

And what do you think we can do about that?
I don't know that anything can be done. I wanted to start a conversation both about the novelty of this new stage of life and some of the problems that it's causing.

I think for women the issue is, if you do think you're going to want to marry and have children some day, it probably is a good idea to give that thought as much attention in your twenties as your future career. The way I see it, your twenties are a time to be accomplishing two major tasks: One is finishing your education and establishing your career, and two is moving towards finding the person that you want to settle down and raise a family with. So that means you need to take your dating life more seriously.

But if there are no good guys...
I think they're out there. I think they get grabbed up. And there are plenty of good guys who are waiting, simply taking advantage of this new stage of life.

So you think the child-men of today will grow up one day?
Yes. Absolutely. I think most child-men will grow up. And they are growing up. I hear stories all the time of the Maxim-reading-beer-pong-playing-frat-boy who turns out by thirty to be a mensch of a guy. But the danger is this: that guy, if he's waiting until his early thirties to become a mensch, the women who are his age are in a different place than he is. Also, to get back to the biology, it is simply a fact that men have an increasing pool of available women as they get older, and women have a diminishing pool. And that's just math. On average, men are more interested in younger women, but not older women.

Another bit of math affecting preadulthood: 58 percent of our college grads are women, which means a great deal of women are going to have a hard time finding a college-educated spouse. And many women don't want to marry "down." Will they do so in the future? I suspect that a lot of them will decide to simply have children on their own.

So men will continue to feel increasingly left out.
This could be a vicious circle, where an increasing number of college educated women will be having children on their own, which is another way of saying to men, "You really aren't necessary." Which will lead to more bad behavior on the part of men.

That paints a sort of depressing picture of the future...
I think these trends are unfolding slowly. However, a lot of the work I've done has been on the breakdown of the family, particularly among lower-income people. And when doing that work, I've concentrated mostly on the effect of marital breakdown on kids. In this book, I'm also suggesting that this can have a very big effect on men.

Is there a way that this future can be avoided?
One thing we have to do, and this may seem a little abstract, is we have to pay a little more attention to how our boys are doing in school. To have over 50% of the college educated population be women is terrible for men, horrible for women, and bad for society as a whole. So we need to figure out what's turning boys off school and try to equalize those numbers.
I think we also really need to have a more serious discussion of fathers in children's lives. We've wanted to embrace all sorts of families. But we have to think about the message we're sending to men about their role in family life. I think the sexes are interdependent. We like to tout our independence.

So true. OK, so to finish up: What do you hope your readers will take away from "Manning Up"?
I hope they'll take away an understanding of this very strange new world of the 20-something. I hope the book will start discussions about the role of marriage and childbearing in our lives and how we're going to help the sexes figure out how to negotiate this new period where people are marrying later and having children later.

And can I just clarify one thing. I'm not saying everyone should marry at twenty-one. I'm not arguing for earlier marriage, I'm arguing for earlier mindfulness about it. Which is a little different. Also, people make the mistake of thinking it's either career or marriage. And it's not.


Kate Fridkis interviews Kay Hymowitz about her new book, Kate Fridkis blogs about body image at Eat the Damn Cake and education at Un-schooled. She also writes for The Huffington Post. She lives in Manhattan, and having married young, is not a pre-adult. She is also, somewhat randomly, the cantor at a synagogue in central New Jersey.

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