THE WOMEN ARE IRATE. The women are talking about men, young men, the men they’d like to date and marry, and are they ever pissed. Here’s what they’re saying:
“All they want is sex. They don’t care about relationships.”
“They’re so lazy.”
“All they do is play video games.”
“They aren’t men. They’re boys.”
The women are a little bewildered. They’re good girls. They followed the script: did well in high school, got into college, worked hard there, got out, got jobs, started looking around for someone special to share life with, and …
“I met a guy the other night. Good-looking, smart. Twenty-eight years old. He still lives at home. With his mom.” Young men are now nearly twice as likely as young women to live with their parents; 59 percent of guys ages 18 to 24 and 19 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds live at home. Based on those Census Bureau stats, 64,000 young Philly men have returned to or never left the nest—and they all have mothers, ex-girlfriends, grandmothers, dads and other friends and relations worrying about their plight.
The women know what everybody’s saying: It’s the economy, stupid. Young men have been whacked particularly hard in this “mancession.” The statistics are scary: From 1960 to 2009, the number of working-age men with full-time jobs fell from 83 percent to 66 percent. In Philadelphia, half of all young adults are unemployed. But three in 10 young men ages 25 to 34 had stopped looking for work before the recession hit. So it’s not just the economy. There’s something more at play.
Sociologists cite five “markers” or “milestones” that have traditionally defined our notion of adulthood: finishing school, moving away from the parental home, becoming financially independent, getting married, and having a child. In 1960, 65 percent of men had ticked off all five by age 30; by 2000, only a third had. The experts have plenty of explanations for what’s come to be called “extended adolescence” or “emerging adulthood”—or what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls the “Odyssey Years.” They blame helicopter parents, the burden of student loan debt, much higher poverty rates among young people (nearly half of all Americans ages 25 to 34 live below the national level), and a dearth of vo-tech training and manufacturing jobs. Almost 60 percent of parents are now giving money to their grown kids—an average of $38,340 per child in the years between ages 18 and 34. Whatever happened to the son looking after his mom?
But those are the grousings of an older generation. We’ve always complained that those following after us are shiftless, goal-less, unmotivated. Remember walking 10 miles to school, uphill both ways? What’s different now is that half of one generation is complaining about the other half.
“The majority of the guys my age that I meet are immature,” says Jessica Claremon, a blunt, outspoken 24-year-old who grew up in Fort Washington and now lives in New York City, where she works for Nickelodeon. “I would never call them ‘men.’” Bruno Mars seems to have articulated an entire gender’s worldview in last summer’s hit “The Lazy Song”:
Today I don’t feel like doing anything
I just wanna lay in my bed
Don’t feel like picking up my phone
So leave a message at the tone
’Cause today I swear I’m not doing anything
Why has doing anything become so difficult for today’s young men?
“I CAME TO WIN,” RIHANNA SINGS in “Fly,” her recent hit with Nicki Minaj: “To fight, to conquer, to thrive; I came to win, to survive, to prosper, to rise. … ” She doesn’t exactly sound like Bruno Mars’s dream date, does she?
“Men are lagging behind young women in the push forward,” says Barbara Ray, co-author of a book, Not Quite Adults, based on research conducted by the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood. “Women are surpassing men in a lot of indicators of success.” Men, the network’s research suggests, have become marginalized: The skills women have—they’re better listeners, they work better in teams—are what’s needed in the modern work-world. “Women see a clearer fit for themselves,” says Ray, “and employers do, too.”
When Barry Schwartz started teaching at Swarthmore in the ’70s and would pose a question to a class, “Someone was always interrupting before the question was finished,” he recalls, “and it was always a male.” Now, he says, guys aren’t doing that. A lot of observers say male disengagement in colleges and schools is a result of the “feminization” of our educational system: Boys are told to sit down, shut up and drill to the test; if they can’t, we put them on Adderall.
“Women are really motivated by the idea of school achievement,” says Bogle. “They’ll say, ‘I’ll get a master’s degree next!’ They want to climb that ladder.” But men who are into school are seen as wimpy and nerdy. That helps explain why current college enrollment nationwide is about 60 percent female and only 40 percent male. “Young men are having trouble at institutions of higher learning and in the labor force,” says Temple psychology professor Laurence Steinberg, who just published an updated third edition of his classic You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25—with the age range extended from 20 in the prior edition. “There’s more competition from women.” What happens when women outperform men? Men withdraw from the field. Women, Schwartz says, are invested in economic success, but it doesn’t define them: “The stakes are still higher for men. If you lose your job, you’re a failure.” And what if you can’t get a job in the first place, like so many young men?
“The world tells us that white American men are extremely powerful,” says Harper. “Statistics show they are disproportionately advantaged in all sorts of ways. But individual white men don’t feel privileged or advantaged. People pay more attention to women, to minorities, and white men feel, ‘Nobody is paying attention to me.’”
That’s where video games come in. Like porn, they provide a sense of mastery. Research shows males prefer games in which they feel “emotions that sustain dominant masculine identity”—in which they drive fast, blow things up, kill things, and sometimes batter women. But it’s not the content that’s the biggest problem; it’s the time commitment. Half of all college students say video games keep them from studying “some” or “a lot.” A few years back, a disgruntled co-ed told the New York Times she’d sworn off gamers for good because “they’re choosing to do something that wastes their time and sucks the life out of them.”
Something, it seems, is sucking the life out of guys quite literally. One-third of male college students say they’ve experienced erectile dysfunction. Leonard Sax, a family physician for nearly 20 years who authored the book Boys Adrift, saw more and more of them in his Maryland office, asking for Viagra and Cialis. Constant access to porn has desensitized them; they can’t get it up with live girls. “We’re seeing the replacement of penile sex with oral sex,” says Sax, “with the girl on her knees, servicing the boy. Boys and girls both end up losers.” One in five men ages 18 to 25 are now classified as “sub-fertile” because of low sperm count and quality, both of which have been dropping in the developed world for the past 50 years. Curiously, 50 years ago, around 64 percent of all college students were male.
You’d think boys would be feeling bad about their lack of puissance. They’re not, especially, because we’ve painstakingly taught them never to be judgmental. When the authors of the book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood polled young adults, 47 percent agreed that “morals are relative, there are not definite rights and wrongs for everybody.” If you want to lie in bed all day and beat up virtual hookers—dude, hey, that’s cool.
Irvin Schorsch is the founder of Jenkintown’s Pennsylvania Capital Management, which provides investment advice for 160 wealthy families. More and more of those families have offspring who are failing to launch into successful lives. He worries about the ramifications: “The most important asset any investor has is time. If you want to save a million dollars, I can make that happen—with enough time.” With no head start, the men—and families—of tomorrow will always be playing catch-up. Schorsch takes a hard-core approach to emptying the nest. Many of his clients have children who are in their 50s and still living at home: “People say, ‘It’s for their own good. I can afford it.’ But has that child done well?”
SHAUN HARPER’S NEW BOOK, College Men and Masculinities, is an entry in the relatively recent field of men’s studies. “For many years,” says Harper, “the term ‘gender’ was synonymous with ‘women.’” Just about every college has a women’s center and courses in women’s studies, but there are two genders, and there are problems and difficulties that seem inherent to being male. Suicide, Harper points out, is four times more common among young men than young women. In campus and high-school shoot-outs, the culprits are always male. Men are far more likely to be involved in campus judicial procedures. And yet, he says, “Colleges don’t commit their time to troubled masculinities. There are four awful words—‘Boys will be boys’—that people use for making sense of what’s happening.” And the “boys” keep getting older and older.
When Harper interviews college men, they readily talk about their drinking, the homophobic jokes they make, their sexual conquests. But they also say to him: “You know, that’s not really who I am. That’s just what guys at college do.” Gender, Harper says, is performative: Young men are simply following a script, doing what they think they’re supposed to. Take Patrick. For a guy, he’s unusually attuned to matters of gender. He’s volunteered for years at a shelter for battered women. “It’s damaging to just follow the archetypes you’ve been taught,” he says. And yet one night after a committee meeting for the shelter’s fund-raiser, he found himself in the kitchen with two fellow Penn State grads: “It was pretty amazing how quickly we fell back into the way guys talk—into that very stereotypical male vibe.”
Partly because of feminism, partly because of moral relativism, partly because of Clint Eastwood, 21st-century America has defined masculinity in negative ways: Real men don’t drink pumpkin lattes; real men don’t ask for directions; real men don’t cry. What, though, do real men do?
In Boys Adrift, Leonard Sax says American men have gone astray because we’ve failed to provide them with a social construction of masculinity—an answer to the question “What makes a man a man?” That construction can be intellectual, as for Orthodox Jews, or more physical, as for Maasai warriors. But manhood can’t just be something you age into. It has to be seen as an achievement, and aspired to. In the absence of such a construct, young men will provide their own—via street gangs or college frats or the eternal guyland of plasma TVs and fantasy football pools.
Before we as a society can offer that social construction, we have to decide: What exactly does make a man a man? Time magazine recently reported a trend in romance novels away from otherworldly vampire and werewolf heroes toward old-school firemen, cops and Special Forces veterans. It’s understandable that women long to be taken care of in a perilous economy. But William Bennett’s 2011 The Book of Man, intended to lay out a road map to masculinity with its prescribed doses of Tennyson and Longfellow and Poe (“Annabel Lee”? Really, Bill? “Annabel Lee”?), seems impossibly corny in these cynical, post-ironical times.
Shaun Harper’s had a smart idea. There are young men out there, he says, who manage somehow to navigate the harrowing voyage through American culture and come out as “good guys”—men who drink responsibly, respect women, and behave in anti-sexist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic ways. So he’s studying them: “We have a national study of mostly white, heterosexual men at large, mostly white universities with large fraternity systems”—schools like Penn State. He’s looking at how these “good men” develop and perform their masculinities in a culture where bad behavior is rewarded and admired. If he can identify what they share, he says, we can work to replicate it.
Sax, meanwhile, offers a shorthand definition of masculinity that seems pretty bulletproof: Real men stand up for the weak and disempowered. Imagine the changes that would wreak in Washington, D.C. But he’s not holding his breath—and he’s helping his five-year-old daughter learn to speak Spanish. “I don’t fear for the human spirit,” he says, “but I’m not optimistic for American men.”