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Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity

The old always seem to blame the young for the downfall of civilization.  So readers under 40 might be skeptical when I, a member of the “senior class” of Baby Boomers (born in 1946), claim that markers of male maturity have declined sharply in the last 20 years.   Who am I to complain?  Many from my generation rejected the values of their parents, and vowed in the 60s to never trust anyone over 30.  But I still think it’s fair to say today there is no rush into maturity if that can be measured by an early embrace of family responsibility. 

Young men, once considered ineffectual or of “doubtful” sexuality if they were unmarried at 25, now marry at 27 on the average.  While as recently as 1980, only six percent of men reached their early 40s without marrying (compared to five percent of women), by 2004, that percentage had increased to 16.5 percent of men (and 12.5 percent of women).  Even more telling, 55 percent of American men aged 18 to 24 live with their parents and 13 percent between 25 to 34 years of age still live at home, compared to only eight percent of women. 

Of course, extended education, increased cost of housing, and just greater caution in view of their parent’s frequent failed marriages may explain a lot why young men (and women) “fail to launch” into family responsibility.  But, as singles, ensconced within male or youth peer cultures, young men have plenty of time and opportunity to live the life of the boy-man.  Sitcoms like Seinfeld or Friends mirror the dreamlife if not reality of many singles, especially men.  And the on-going popularity of Adam Sandler’s perpetual teenager roles and Howard Stern’s puerile passions say a lot.  Think of the difference between Hugh Grant and Cary Grant.  Note the hedonistic appeals of Superbowl ads and of Maxim Magazine and the fact that the mean age of video game players has risen to 33 in 2005 (up from 18 in 1997).  Generation X men don’t give up playing as they “grow up.”  The culture of the boy-men today is less a life-stage than a life-style, less a transition from childhood to adulthood than a choice to live like a teen “forever.”

Despite temptation, I refuse to blame today’s young.  They didn’t make the world they live in and react to.  Are Baby Boomers at fault then?  As one, I admit that we certainly made a fetish of youth (though some of us thought that we would improve on our father’s definition of manhood and become men who related to our children, recognized equality with our partners, and didn’t need macho images of heroism and authority).  However, not only did we become “the man” rather than “new men” and sell out (a fact that is hardly surprising), but we did not become our fathers.  Instead, we reveled in our status as youth, long after it was gone.  We remained in many ways the teenage sons of our fathers, and some of us never gave up rebelling against our elders.  And a generation of advertising and popular culture reinforced all this.  While we Baby Boomers discarded the traditional markers of maturity and tried to recover our boyhood, our sons’ generation made youth a permanent way of life at least in their leisure.

By contrast, many look back on the World War II generation, Tom Brokaw’s ”Greatest Generation” as models of male maturity.  Just contrast George Bush senior with his son.  But were those returning warriors such paragons of responsibility and refinement?   Think of the Beats on the road, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and his lifelong love of the hotrod, and Hugh Hefner, Playboy, and his “Girls Next Door” (on cable TV).  Behind all of this rebellion, what Barbara Ehrenreich once called the “flight from commitment,” was a deep confusion about what a man was supposed to do and be even in those presumably self-assured 1950s.  The father may have been glorified as the provider, but at home he had often been reduced to the role of banker and playmate. 

And even in the youth of my father’s generation, a culture of the cool was emerging that denied the “coming of age” narrative.  The old Tom Swift serials or even the Andy Hardy movies were replaced by superhero comics that offered instead stories of endless youth.  The Greatest Generation was the first to collect the toys and cars of their youth. The ideal grown-up of the 1950s and 1960s was hard for even men of that era to live up to.  And not a few took pleasure in the romantic quest for intense and varied experience as well as in a cynical disdain for genteel sensibilities.  They were the first generation to be “cool,” rebels against bourgeois competition and providership. Ed Roth and Hugh Hefner never grew up and they were proud of it.  We see their legacy everywhere in today’s popular culture from the over-the-top smart-ass cynicism of The Family Guy to the self-absorption of Two and a Half Men.    

This flight from traditional standards of maturity spans across my sons’ and my father’s generations.  Our age has systematically rejected the Victorian patriarch without finding an adequate alternative.  The decline of deference, the feminist challenge to patriarchy, and the acceleration of technological change has meant that there is much less of a “pay-off” for male maturity in families and on the job.  Much of this is for the good, but in the process some men have abandoned the traditional ideals of paternal responsibility to family, community, and culture without replacing them with new models of “grown-up” behavior.  Over time, being a kid has become much more satisfying than it was in the past when the young submitted to elders and did without, while the aged had distinct privileges. Even after men assume adult roles, they became nostalgic for the play of their childhood and youth.  Makers of modern consumer and media culture have learned to exploit and even amplify this rejection of past models of maturity and this longing to return to or retain childhood. This makes youth, once a life-stage, into a permanent and highly desirable lifestyle. The result is men and boys play with the same toys and are attracted to the same novelties and celebrities in a culture of intensity. The impact of all this on families, social responsibility, and culture is incalculable.   Reversing these trends will not be easy, but it is a responsibility that transcends generation.