The Sorry Lives and Confusing Times of Today’s Young Men
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?
Connor, 24, graduated from Penn State in May of last year. It took him five years instead of four to finish his journalism degree, so he has about a hundred thou in student loans. “Scholarship was the ball I dropped more often than work or my social life,” he says. When I spoke to him late last year, he was living at home with his parents, working part-time—30 hours a week—as a blogger. It wasn’t enough to live on, and he didn’t get health benefits. He was sure he could get a different job: “If I wanted to support myself, I would. But I’m lucky enough to have parents who are well off. We’re all just waiting it out for a while.”
The move from Happy Valley back to his childhood bedroom wasn’t entirely smooth. “My dad struggles to get it a little,” Connor says. “He’s an engineer. He went to a military academy. He had a wife and kid by the time he was my age.” When Connor took an unpaid internship a few years back, “He was like, ‘What is the plan?’ I said, ‘I know what the plan is. You just don’t like the plan.’” The unpaid internship grew into a part-time job. If it hadn’t, “I would have gotten a job as a waiter somewhere. I wasn’t going to take something I didn’t want to do.”
Connor rides the train home every workday from the city to his parents’ house in West Chester. He’ll have dinner with Mom and Dad, watch TV with them. West Chester nightlife doesn’t really cut it for him now: “I’m a Farmers’ Cabinet guy. I have expensive tastes.” He doesn’t pay rent or buy groceries, but he does his own laundry. “It’s not like they’re giving me $10 for the movies,” he says.
There are challenges. “I have no option but celibacy,” says Connor, who’s outgoing and athletic and handsome. “I don’t really approach women, even. I’m not going to take someone home and sleep with her in my parents’ house.” He gets away to visit friends on weekends every chance he can. His mom, he says, wants him to text her when he arrives safely. He doesn’t. “I’m 24 years old. I shouldn’t have to check in with Mommy.”
When Connor was still in school, sometimes he’d encounter friends of his parents who’d press their business cards on him: “They’d say, ‘I’m in insurance—call me when you get out of school.’” Connor threw the cards away. He says he’d rather wait tables for the rest of his life than work in sales. Besides, he has a buddy from college who’s made it in L.A., in films. The buddy’s success validates Connor’s approach to life: “You have to have faith in your intangible abilities.”
CONNOR’S A CLASSIC ALL-AMERICAN GUY, CIRCA 2012. He’s also a prime example of the attributes that experts say are crippling him and his peers. He hasn’t proven particularly successful, yet he’s absolutely sure he will be successful. He’s got more than enough self-esteem. And he’s living with his mom.
“I’m astonished, just astonished, that kids are moving back home,” says Barry Schwartz, a longtime psychology professor at Swarthmore College who studies happiness and satisfaction. “My kids never came home once they left. They would have seen coming home to live as an absolute failure—the worst thing in the world.” But it’s part of a continuum, he says: “It’s also astonishing to me that kids are in touch with their parents five times a day on their cell phones.” Those parents, he says, have cocooned their children all their lives. They’re too eager to be their kids’ friends and too reluctant to exert authority. As a result, “They don’t do much to nudge fledglings out of the nest.” Connor can see that in his mom: “She’d like me to leave, but not because she wants me to leave.” He thinks she’d pretty much be cool with him living with her for the rest of his life.
And why wouldn’t he want to? We’ve made home so comfortable. “When you had six or seven kids in a family,” says Kathleen Bogle, a sociology professor at La Salle and author of the campus-sex book Hooking Up, “young people were dying to have their own place. Now they’re living in a big house, not paying any rent, and they can come and go as they please.” Sex is awkward, sure, but young men are having bromances with their guy friends instead, modeling themselves on Entourage, Jersey Shore and The Hangover. “Popular culture in general values singlehood,” says Bogle. “In the 1950s, the stigma was not getting married. Now it’s reversed.”
Bogle mentions the “unintended consequences of inventions” and posits that extended adolescence may be the accidental offspring of the Pill. The upper-class norm now, she says, is not to have kids until you’re in your 30s. The median age of male marriage keeps getting pushed further back—more than three years (which is an eon to sociologists) since 1980, to 28.2. That leaves young men with a long, long stretch of sowing wild oats—while young women tap their feet impatiently. (And not nearly as many people are marrying at all; in 1960, more than half of all 18-to-29-year-olds were wed; today, it’s around 20 percent.)
Bogle thinks Facebook may also be contributing to perpetual boyhood. Prior generations of men, she says, would leave their tight-knit communities of college friends, move to new cities, and become isolated. That made relationships with women more attractive, since women typically organized social life. “Now, Facebook makes it so easy to keep in touch with your old friends, to make plans and coordinate,” Bogle says. Guys can actually do it themselves.
Speaking of do-it-yourself, more than one academic cites porn as a reason young men are content to climb back into the family nest. “When I was a boy,” says Shaun Harper, a professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education who studies how young men live and learn, “you had to work to find porn. And hide it! It was only available in an underground way.” Today, it’s as close as any website ending in .xxx. Researchers conducting a recent large study on porn and prostitution had trouble finding non-users to serve as a control group. An article in New York magazine last year described how young men have come to expect the “Porn Star Experience” from women, and find themselves faking orgasms when the real thing proves less satisfactory than the video version. No less than rock god John Mayer, whose girlfriends have included Jessica Simpson, Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift, told Playboy that he prefers masturbation to “real” sex: “Once I have to deal with someone else’s desires, I cut and run.” If you don’t even have to leave the house to find sexual gratification—much less put on a tie, make small talk and pay for dinner—why would you bother? That this forces young women to compete for men’s attention not just with one another but also with Jesse Jane and Lexi Belle explains a lot of contemporary evening wear.
*Names, but nothing else, have been changed.
“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?”
RESEARCHERS AT CORNELL UNIVERSITY not long ago asked 20,000 young men and women across the United States how they self-identified sexually. Of the men in the sample, 5.6 percent said they were gay or bisexual. Of the women, 14.4 percent did. Leonard Sax offers a possible explanation for why three times as many young women as young men now say they’re gay: The guys they know are losers.
James graduated a decade ago from a big state college out West. “I was not the greatest student in high school,” he admits, “so my options weren’t Ivy League. I decided to go for the weather.” He majored in business. Why? “I got to a point where I just wanted to get out, and that’s what I chose.”
When he graduated, he worked for an Internet software company, then at a magazine owned by a guy he knew in college. The magazine work was hard, and his parents, he says, “definitely saw some lack of motivation.” He moved back East to take a job in the family business: “Looking back is always 20/20, but you should not take a job because it’s family.” He broke up with the girlfriend he’d had for a decade. It was the start of the recession. “She was spoiled,” James says. “She wanted things. It was a difficult time.” Two years ago, he moved back home. He’s trying to start up an energy consulting firm.
Living at home in Penn Valley wasn’t so bad at first. He spent much of the first summer at his grandfather’s place down the Shore. He met a girl, a teacher his age, and she had an apartment. But he broke up with her after a year and a half: “I came to realize she cared for me more than I would ever be able to return.”
Now, life with his parents is wearing on him. “If you want to watch TV, there’s just the den,” he says. “And they’re in there.” I ask whether he thinks his parents might have imagined themselves doing something at this point in their lives other than sharing their home with him. “They’re not really doing anything,” he says, sounding a little surprised. “They enjoy me being there.”
James is 31. He always figured he’d be married at 31. He certainly thought he’d have a place of his own. He doesn’t have a plan for the future: “Plans change, and the plan has to change really quick.” His outlook on life has become simpler: “I like being near my family, near my friends. I don’t need to make $10 million. I’d like to be successful, have a house, have kids. But how I get there … ”
I ask if, looking back, he would have done anything differently. “You want to say no,” he says, “that you have no regrets. But I could have tried harder in school. It would have built up a work ethic, you know? I felt I was okay not doing any work. But that carries over into life.”
James has a new girlfriend now: “I guess I’m kind of a catch.” She just graduated from college. The teacher he broke up with? “I didn’t want a girl who was getting older and pressuring to get married. I’m not at that point in my life.”
Leonard Sax writes and lectures on how to change the American education system so boys will become more engaged. But for guys like James, from here on out? Sax offers an analogy: If you’re baking a cake and you just put it in the oven and realize you forgot to add the vanilla, you can still pull the cake out and stir some in. Pouring vanilla extract over a cake that’s already baked isn’t going to make it better, though. “When a family calls and says their 30-year-old son spends his days watching porn and playing video games,” Sax says, “my response is, ‘I have nothing to offer you.’”
A 30-year-old man is baked.
THERE ARE MEN—AND WOMEN, TOO—who say the sorry state of American men is women’s fault: Screech all that feminist propaganda long enough, and of course you’ll wind up with low-sperm-count losers trolling the Internet for porn. And there are, mostly, women who are celebrating what journalist and Philly native Kay S. Hymowitz has anointed “the New Girl Order.” Even Hymowitz, though, called the guys out in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece:
Relatively affluent, free of family responsibilities, and entertained by an array of media devoted to his every pleasure, the single young man can live in pig heaven—and often does. Women put up with him for a while, but then in fear and disgust either give up on any idea of a husband and kids or just go to a sperm bank and get the DNA without the troublesome man.
An article by Hanna Rosin in the Atlantic, “The End of Men,” postulated that modern, post-industrial society is simply more suited to women than it is to men. As my 22-year-old daughter puts it, “Maybe it’s just our time.”
But while they’re perfectly willing to rule the world, women still yearn to get married and have babies. Kathleen Bogle says that when she asks young women when they want to marry, they’ll frame their response as “no later than” and give an age. Ask men, and they say not before a certain age.
Despite their sturdy self-esteem, young men sense that they’re not exactly cutting it. “To say my ego is large is kind of obvious,” says Connor. “But it’s … emasculating to be home. Is that the word?” Patrick, who’s 27 and moved home almost five years ago, says, “It wasn’t something I wanted to do. It still carries a little bit of shame.”
The sad fact is, women may have doomed their own hopes by being so successful. Gender identity, sociologists say, is developed oppositionally. If boys see girls behaving in a certain way—working hard and excelling in school—they define masculinity in opposite terms: A real man doesn’t work hard at school or get good grades. The more that women try to set an example of responsible adult behavior, the more the guys shout along with the band Deer Tick: “We’re full-grown men but we act like kids!”
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.”