The Wall Street Journal runs controversial, conversation-starter pieces as part of a weekly column called “The Saturday Essay.” In January, they ran an Amy Chua piece called “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” which set off a real firestorm. This past Saturday, they ran a piece called “Where Have the Good Men Gone?” It’s very good, and speaking personally, I can say that it’s served its role as a conversation-piece. It begins:
Not so long ago, the average American man in his 20s had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage and children. Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This “pre-adulthood” has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it’s time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn’t bring out the best in men.
College. College lasts forever, and student loan debt is crippling. There are a lot of people in their mid-20s that are holding off on marriage because they (a) are still in school, (b) can’t afford to start a family with six-figure student loan debt, or both. So for the first time in American history, it’s not unusual to find 28 year-olds who spent the last decade surrounded by excessive drinking, casual sex, four day weekends, and the like, without ever holding so much as a part-time job. And then we act shocked when these people turn out to be irresponsible and self-indulgent.
Globalization. It’s a major asset these days to be able to travel halfway across the globe to close a deal. And that’s a lot easier if you’re single. Mobility is required in a way we haven’t really seen before.
The Collapse of Gender Roles. The message our culture has sent to men and women couldn’t have been more stark in the past generation or so. The “Girl Power” movement, with phrases like, “You Go, Girl” really reinforced the idea that women could do anything that they wanted to. If you dreamed of being a mom and a high-powered executive, no problem! On the other hand, young men were sent a lot of signals that they were worthless or worse. The famous bumper sticker from the 1970s said, “A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle,” and for many years, it seemed that every family-based sitcom featured a dumb dad getting bossed around by his wife and kids. Then there’s things like the t-shirt on the right (to get the gravity of what’s being said, just imagine that the shirt said “girls,” instead).
The results have been pronounced, if unsurprising. More women graduate from college than men (34% of women aged 25-34 have a bachelor’s degree, compared with just 27% of men), and Hymowitz notes in the WSJ article notes that “in a number of cities” young women are earning more than their male counterparts. Hymowitz concludes: “Why should they [men] grow up? No one needs them anyway. There’s nothing they have to do.They might as well just have another beer.” There seems to be something to that. What’s more, this push for women to succeed (and for men to just stay out of the way) has come in the midst of something broader:
What explains this puerile shallowness? I see it as 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.
Today’s pre-adult male is like an actor in a drama in which he only knows what he shouldn’t say. He has to compete in a fierce job market, but he can’t act too bossy or self-confident. He should be sensitive but not paternalistic, smart but not cocky. To deepen his predicament, because he is single, his advisers and confidants are generally undomesticated guys just like him.
I suspect that it was not the behavior of one gender that ignited this current animosity between the sexes; rather, I think it started when we, together as a society, started redefining marriage and sexual morality.
When sex meant marriage, people got married earlier. When sex and marriage meant children, young men worked harder at younger ages to prepare to provide for a family. If a young man wasted his early 20s on inane pursuits, there were real consequences: he’d be viewed as irresponsible and a bad provider, and thus his opportunities for marriage (and therefore intimacy with a woman) would be drastically limited. Young women held men to higher standards. For them, a boyfriend wasn’t just someone to “hook up” with (to use Klausner’s parlance), but the potential future father of their children — and they expected him to act accordingly. And young women were motivated to shape up their behavior as well: a woman who didn’t show any interest in the self-sacrifice and maturity required for marriage would have a hard time getting dates.