Today, women graduate from college in greater numbers, with higher grade point averages and even outearn men in several fields of work. How men feel about women’s new role in society is the subject of Kay Hymowitz’s new book, “Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys.” Read an excerpt.
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, thirty-something 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?”
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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 pre-adulthood — 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, un-ironic men.
To understand why that is, we need to take a good look at this cultural habitat of pre-adulthood. Decades in the unfolding, the limbo of the twenty- and early thirty-something years probably strikes many readers as not especially noteworthy. After all, the media has been crowded with pre-adults 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 twenty-something. 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, pre-adulthood 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.
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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 pre-adulthood 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 pre-adults, 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. Pre-adulthood, 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.
From "Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys" by Kay Hymowitz. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books.
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