They’re not boys anymore, but they certainly aren’t men. Welcome to Guyland.
Kick back, crack a few brews, and after a few hours of online gaming, take in a televised ball game with your bros, tell some lies about women, and laugh a lot. It doesn’t get better, right?
Well, actually, it does, but too many young men seem to think that there is little more to manhood than turning a baseball cap from backwards to forward.
Welcome to Guyland, where a generation of mostly white, mostly college-educated men are mired in adolescence for as much as a full decade after their teen years. According to Dr. Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at SUNY-Stonybrook, “The traditional map for becoming a man has vanished.”
Kimmel’s 2008 book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, identifies a new class of men—guys—who are scared of assuming adult roles in their careers and love life. It’s not that they don’t want to grow up—they don’t know how.
Ask any college professor who teaches in the humanities, as I do, and you’ll get the same observation. Though women undergo the transition to adulthood during the same stage of development, because of what Kimmel calls “a smaller window of fertility,” the female map of what to do and when to do it is far more clear for women. Guys, on the other hand, seem good-naturedly purposeless, and since the window on life-options seems to stay forever open, why worry?
Some of this new gender gap is biological; for young women, there are no years available to sit around and shoot the shit—not if they want children and a career. With not much time to waste, young women develop clear ideas about how to get from now to next.
Chat with a twenty-something woman, she can describe her career plans, when she will marry, the hoped for date her children will arrive, their names, and quite possibly their sex. Women today are not shy about creating concrete life goals and peering into the future to see how she will accomplish them.
But if you chat with her male counterpart, there’s a good chance he’ll shrug the conversation off and dismiss the future with a vague “whatever.”
That vagueness of vision may not apply to your average business major in school to learn to fill a wheelbarrow with money—and over in the sciences the boys are not vague about studying hard to become professional, well-paid geeks. But in the liberal arts, the traditional refuge for a generalist college degree, the place where those Big Questions get asked and never answered, youthful ambition is as rare as rainbows: not impossible, but hardly something you see every day.
Kimmel identifies three forces that shape Guyland. “First, the longevity revolution has diminished the pressure to marry in a man’s early twenties.”
“Second, the instability of the economy makes identification with a specific career perilous.” He adds, “So why commit to a job?”
Finally, Kimmel believes cultural forces make Guyland a kind of perpetual DisneyWorld on a testosterone buzz.
“Sports and trash talk are ways to exclude women,” he says, “and in the modern consumer economy, where consumption creates identity, guys pursue masculinity by buying what they think they need to feel like men.” That would be beer, video games, expensive equipment for weekend warrior games, and maybe more beer.
And then there’s the ubiquity of internet pornography, creating the illusion of an infinite pool of willing and adventurous partners forever young and forever available.
Why commit to real life when the fantasy is so perfect?
“Guys are terrified,” Kimmel explains, partly because of a generation’s gains by women. “Guys see gender competition as a zero-sum game as the traditional male prerogatives from the 50s and 60s have vanished.” Kimmel notes that in a world where 70 percent of high school valedictorians are female, men simply withdraw from the competition, rather than fail.
Having helicopter parents only makes the situation worse. According to Kimmel, even college presidents get phone calls from concerned, insecure Boomer parents defending their wonder-kids, parents unwilling to accept that little Timmy may have actually earned that C+ on his last term paper.
Except for binge drinking and extreme sports, young men have become risk averse, especially for the things that matter, like love and work. Guyland is filled with easy classes, easy professors, and nary a challenge in sight.
What can grown men do to help their younger counterparts achieve manhood?
Age and experience used to confer a quality called wisdom, but Kimmel points out that in Guyland, social education goes from peer to peer. Where most cultures have transition rituals run by older men that conducted a boy to manhood, we have text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook.
“Today, a 16-year-old who wants to learn to be mature will ask a twenty-one year old,” Kimmel says. Fathers who want a richer life for their boys—without hovering—need to stay connected to their sons. Kimmel advises, “Dads who say, ‘I’m done’ when their boys reach 18 need to think again.”
—Perry Glasser is also a contributor to The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood.