Last Updated Mar 23, 2011 3:08 PM EDT
Between all the references to the "mancession" in the media and stories like my BNET colleague's recent piece on the uptick in male plastic surgery, even the most casual observer can sense that something is up with men. But what is it? The diagnosis and the cure for what, if anything, ails the modern man is harder to agree on.
Stirring the pot of debate recently is Kay Hymowitz's book Manning Up, which was recently excerpted in the WSJ. In the piece, Hymowitz lays out the well known evidence that young men these days are struggling, delaying traditional markers of adulthood, being out-earned by young women in some big cities and out-educated by them in college. All while they confront headlines like "The End of Men" in respected publications and pine after the Don Draper heyday of masculinity (OK, not all men are pining for the 60s, but nostalgia is in the air).
So after laying out the symptoms, what's Hymowitz's verdict? Put simply, boys just don't want to grow up. She describes a nation of Judd Apatow characters, trading wives and children for PlayStation games and Saturday night bromance. This choice to become "aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers," isn't down to sheer laziness, according to Hymowitz, but has its roots in larger cultural changes that demand a longer, harder trek to a quality career, and leave young man feeling lost. 20-something dudes who decorate their homes with Star Wars posters and video game consoles, she writes, are an
expression of our cultural uncertainty about the social role of men. It's been an almost universal rule of civilization that girls became women simply by reaching physical maturity, but boys had to pass a test. They needed to demonstrate courage, physical prowess or mastery of the necessary skills. The goal was to prove their competence as protectors and providers. Today, however, with women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional, and the qualities of character men once needed to play their roles -- fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity -- are obsolete, even a little embarrassing.
But based on the the vitriolic reaction to her book excerpt, some men aren't blaming sociology for their troubles. They're blaming women. Responding to rage-filled comments to her WSJ piece in the Daily Beast, Hymnowitz reports that many young guys are pointing the finger at female hypocrisy and casting their slacker image as a rebellion against unreasonable women:
Women may want equality at the conference table and treadmill. But when it comes to sex and dating, they aren't so sure. The might hook up as freely as a Duke athlete. Or, they might want men to play Greatest Generation gentleman. Yes, they want men to pay for dinner, call for dates -- a writer at the popular dating website The Frisky titled a recent piece "Call me and ask me out for a damn date!" -- and open doors for them. A lot of men wonder: "WTF??!" Why should they do the asking? Why should they pay for dinner? After all, they are equals and in any case, the woman a guy is asking out probably has more cash in her pocket than he does.
Thus is a click-producing internet shouting match started. Great for website traffic but not, I think, proportional to the actual "crisis" among men. Gender roles have obviously been in flux for decades, but statistics show that women are delaying marriage and parenthood just the same as men (the age of first marriage for women has held steady at roughly two years younger than that for men since the 60s), pointing to the fact that the underlying sociological causes Hymowitz cites as the cause of the man-crisis are actually affecting both genders.
The differences between the pre-marriage lifestyles of men and women are mostly a matter of taste. Beer guzzling and Adam Sandler movies may gross out Hymowitz, but are they really objectively worse somehow than cosmopolitans and Sex and the City 2?
Sure, the recession hit male dominated sectors worse than female dominated ones and yes, the issue of why men lag behind women in education is worth discussing, but Hymowitz comes across as more disturbed by young men's failure to regularly launder their linens. Men and women are both delaying adulthood as the path to a well-paying, progeny-supporting career gets longer. A period of suspended animation in your 20s is now pretty standard for the career-oriented of both sexes. The fact that guys are biding their time doing activities Hymowitz doesn't enjoy, does not a crisis make.
What do you think, is the "crisis" of delayed manhood overblown?