They Grow Up So Slow
How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys
By Kay S. Hymowitz
Basic Books, 248 pages
It is not enough to note that today’s young men—or more precisely, guys—do not know when to put away childish things. They seem unaware that their go-to comforts—the television remote, the Maxim centerfold, the Wii—even qualify as such. American masculinity is in crisis, and something must be done.
Enter Kay Hymowitz, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a veteran social and cultural observer, and, perhaps most significantly, a mother of three. With her latest book, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Is Turning Men into Boys, she admits she has written a work “uncomfortably close” to her children’s lives. Like many modern parents, however, she finds herself both fascinated and somewhat discomfited by her children’s attempts to negotiate adulthood—that is, if they ever decide to grow up.
Manning Up is a potent contribution to a larger inquiry. Books like Kathleen Parker’s Save the Males: Why Men Matter, Why Women Should Care (2008) or Michael Kimmel’s Guyland (2008) all describe an epidemic of slacker man-children, heedless of responsibility, fixated only on the pleasures of today, and out-competed by a new generation of spunky girl go-getters. Hymowitz’s first advantage over other chroniclers of the arrested male adolescent is that she got there first. Manning Up is really a collection of updated essays originally published in the pages of City Journal. She is also a much sharper (and less excitable) observer of youth culture. Whereas Parker’s Save the Males is one long, unfunny feminist joke and Kimmel’s Guyland is so overwrought that even the New York Times chastised it for exaggerating the extent of homophobia among young men, Manning Up is judicious and unusually penetrating in its exploration of the changing cultural and socioeconomic landscape.
“Most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo,” writes Hymowitz, “blissfully free of mortgages, wives, and child-care bills.” And what have they made of their newfound freedom? Not much. The average 26-year-old male in 1965 had married, started a family, and bought a house, but the average “guy” in 2011 has achieved none of these things. Instead, he spends his time outside the office cubicle (or classroom) hanging out with his roommates, watching gross-out Will Ferrell movies, playing video games, and generally whiling away the time.
Earlier generations might have been content to label this period of slacker idleness as mere “goofing off,” but Hymowitz sees in it “a momentous sociological development of profound economic and cultural import”—no less than a new phase of human existence. She terms this phase “pre-adulthood”; other commentators have called it “emerging adulthood,” “extended adolescence,” or “the odyssey years.”
Pre-adulthood is a consequence of the new knowledge economy, and as such, it is a class privilege, reserved solely for the affluent and college-educated. First, Hymowitz notes, it’s only recently that large numbers of single women and men have come to possess the means to live independently of their families, thanks in no small part to the economic expansion that began in the mid-1980s. But more important, a college degree has become absolutely essential to securing a middle-class lifestyle. This means that young Americans are spending more time in school than ever before. Increased specialization requires still more time as pre-adults labor to find the right career path for their talents and interests. As a result, the career search—not marriage—“has become the primary romantic quest of pre-adulthood.”
The quest is more successful for some. While women have readily adapted to the demands of the modern postindustrial economy, men have not fared so well. For every two men who will earn a B.A. this year, three women will do the same. Women earn 60 percent of master’s degrees, almost half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all M.B.A.s. And because the good jobs go to those with degrees, women are starting to out-earn men. In 147 out of the 150 largest U.S. cities, unmarried, childless women are making more money than their male peers—with incomes that are 8 percent greater on average. The fairer sex has become the first sex.
Manning Up is as concerned (if not more so) with this new feminine type—the “alpha girl”—as it is with the “child-man.” Indeed, the two portraits rely on and reinforce each other. As Hymowitz writes, “The child-man is the fun-house-mirror image of the alpha girl. If she is ambitious, he is a slacker. If she is hyper-organized and self-directed, he tends toward passivity and vagueness. If she is preternaturally mature, he is happily not.” The two types are perhaps best epitomized by the wildly popular “slacker-striver” romantic comedy Knocked Up (2007), in which a successful and beautiful TV reporter (Katherine Heigl) finds herself pregnant after a sozzled one-night stand with an overweight, unemployed schlub (Seth Rogan).
Not surprisingly, feminists are eager to celebrate the rise of the alpha girl, even to the point of touting previously taboo theories such as evolutionary psychology. Hanna Rosin, in an essay for the Atlantic, “The End of Men,” suggests that women’s “soft skills”—collaboration, emotional intelligence, inclusiveness—have better equipped them for the modern workplace. With the move from a goods-based manufacturing economy to an information-based one—and the resulting rise of brains over brawn—men have lost their traditional edge. This trend has only solidified during the current “mancession” with its heavy losses in male-dominated industries like construction and transportation. “In the long view,” Rosin writes, “the modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards.”
Extrapolating from the alpha-girl phenomenon, Hymowitz offers an analysis in which capitalism—not the Pill or the feminist movement—is the driving force behind women’s liberation, providing them not only the means to lead their own lives, but also meaningful and fulfilling work. She also gets in her digs at feminism and a culture that neglects or undervalues masculine virtue and sees men’s gain as women’s loss, but never the converse.
More provocatively, she suggests women might benefit from an attribute they often think of as a disadvantage: biological constraint. Even though women now have more control over their reproductive destiny, biology continues to organize their lives. Older women fetch less value on the sexual marketplace, and their fertility takes a steep downward slide at age 35, limiting the time they have to loaf about as pre-adults. In contrast, men face less pressure to grow up and so can extend their “extended adolescence” far longer. At bottom, Hymowitz writes, men are “too free, a fact epitomized by their undefined, open-ended, and proudly autonomous pre-adulthood.”
In the guise of female empowerment, the alpha girl brings with her a deeply unfashionable notion: it’s up to women to civilize men. Hymowitz concedes that some women may not feel up to the challenge of such a demanding improvement project; hence the growing numbers of “choice moms” who have given up on finding a mate and are turning to sperm banks to have children. This might be a “rational choice,” Hymowitz allows, but it “only serve[s] to legitimize men’s attachment to the sandbox. Why should they grow up?”
With such grim prospects in store, many alpha girls might ask, why should we grow up? And there’s reason to believe they want to stay in the sandbox too, despite their gains in the classroom and the workplace. The alpha girl is still a “girl,” after all. In casting the alpha girl as the foil to the child-man, Hymowitz may be giving women too much credit. Certainly, women’s pursuits can be no less shallow or puerile than men’s, as a cursory examination of the latest issue of Cosmo—or even the marginally more serious DoubleX—will attest. Nor are they in that much more of a hurry to grow up and settle down; they are enjoying their romantic adventures (and misadventures) far too much. Indeed, now that Sex and the City and its ilk have made romantic humiliation a badge of honor, they may enjoy the misadventures more—or at least recounting them to a group of sympathetic girlfriends the morning after. Hymowitz begins Manning Up with the single woman’s eternal plaint—Where have all the good men gone?—quoting approvingly from Julie Klausner’s popular dating memoir, 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. “We are sick of hooking up with guys,” Klausner declares on the behalf of “similarly disgruntled American women,” yet it never seems to occur to her that her suitors of choice—the indie rockers, pornographers, and felons of her memoir’s subtitle—aren’t exactly husband material. In memoirs like Klausner’s and even male-driven entertainment like Knocked Up, one can detect more than a tinge of the copious self-pity and the attendant persecution fantasies that have long characterized feminism.
Yet, as in any good romantic comedy, all ends happily for the alpha girl and child-man. Overwrought critics might accuse Hymowitz of seeing in contemporary dating mores the impending collapse of Western civilization, but her final conclusions are rather sanguine. She is far from issuing doomsday proclamations, in stark contrast to her feminist detractors who seem to believe women’s gains are so fragile that any criticism will usher women back into the kitchen. Although Hymowitz refuses to bow to demands that the sexual revolution and its consequences be accepted as unalloyed goods, she does not downplay the benefits greater equality and freedom have brought both sexes. Indeed, she notes that the vast majority of college-educated men and women are still marrying and having children, and their marriages are stable and enduring. In this light, she writes, pre-adulthood “could be considered a policy success of epic proportions.”
However great a policy success it might be, Hymowitz rightly recognizes that pre-adulthood does not come without its trade-offs. The economic and cultural shifts of the past few decades may have resulted in unprecedented freedom and personal fulfillment for some, but they have not been so kind to others. In the end, Manning Up suggests a far subtler and more difficult challenge than the one suggested by its subtitle—one Hymowitz has previously explored in an earlier book, the superb Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age (2006). While pre-adults are busy building their careers, those without college degrees are struggling. Over half of women without a high school degree now have a child out of wedlock, and the working class (those with a high school diploma) is quickly catching up.
“If pre-adulthood is an enlightened philosopher when it comes to work and self-fulfillment,” Hymowitz writes, “it is a lazy mute when it comes to love, sex, and marriage.” But however much today’s alpha girls and child-men might want to avoid serious discussion of those things, the conversation is necessary if we are to begin to repair what Hymowitz aptly terms our “apartheid state of marriage.” With the provocative and spirited Manning Up, Hymowitz has certainly got both sexes talking.