This appeared as a guest post on Earl Hipp’s blog, Man-Making.
In her book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has turned Men into Boys, author Kay Hymowitz looks at the social trends which have created what she terms the “child-man.” She defines a child-man as a male in his twenties or early thirties who lacks the motivation for taking on the various responsibilities often used as metrics for manhood—such as holding down a “real job,” marriage, and starting a family. Instead, the stereotypical child-man is a responsibility-shirking, slovenly-dressed, video-gaming, South Park-watching slouch.
According to Hymowitz, child-men find themselves lost in a world where women make more money, are more educated, and are less likely to want to settle down (with them) and build a family.Publisher’s Weekly (which panned the book) quotes the author, describing pre-adult men as, … living in a world where social demands no longer equate manhood with maturity, (thus) frat dudes, nerds, geeks, and emo-boys can remain in suspended post-adolescence, while women, whose biological clocks are ticking, are forced to choose between single parenthood and casting their lot with a child-man. Hymowitz explores the many cultural forces she believes have brought about this unanticipated and disconcerting effect in males.
Manning Up is less a prescription on how to reverse the child-man trend (though some ideas are presented), than a concise (fewer than 200 pages) historical and cultural analysis of the forces in society that have raised and tolerated the child-man. In a Forbes online interview with Hymowitz, the author describes some of the confusion for men resulting from the feminist movement. She said, . . . the culture at large is uncertain about what it wants from its men. We give a lot of mixed messages. We say, on the one hand, that fathers are so important. At the same time, we say that fathers are optional. Many women seem to want men that are confident and have a strong sense of themselves. At the same time, they are put off by too much masculine, authoritativeness. I think a lot of men react to these mixed signals by retreating into themselves, becoming passive and reluctant, and often waiting for women to make the first move.
Though she points to a number of factors driving men toward child-manhood, Hymowitz zeros in on the rise of the knowledge economy as a chief determinant. In the knowledge economy, it’s not male-favoring brute strength that is most highly prized, but emotional intelligence. She feels this emotional intelligence not only levels the job-market playing field for both genders, but may actually give women the upper hand.
Hymowitz suggests another important change she has witnessed over the last few decades is the infatuation with girl-power. The author doesn’t say empowering girls and young women is a bad thing – but this trend has changed the expectations and aspirations of women and, in response, altered the landscape for males in regards to education, marriage (marrying much later in life), and career opportunities. Hymowitz believes, in many ways, the pro-girl-power movement has come at the expense of boys and younger men. In just one example of many, she cites the major investments made in public schools to bring girls’ scores in math and science to par (or even better) with boys’ scores. She points out similar investments have not been made to raise boys’ reading scores to levels comparable to girls’.
The author also identifies another shift in the last few decades where popular culture increasingly portrays women as in-charge, competent, and sophisticated, while so many movies and TV shows portray men as the opposite: incompetent, unreliable, immature, and often foolish –and only good for a laugh (think Adam Sandler, in Big Daddy, or Seth Rogen in Knocked Up).
What hit me as the most tragic result of changing social conditions Hymowitz describes is the absence of a positive and achievable life script in the lives of too many young men. In the past, Hymowitz writes,
The life script for most men was pretty simple: you’re born; you grow up; you learn to do the hunting, fishing, building, farming, and the like expected of you; you get married, you have children, you get old (if you’re lucky); and you die. There were exceptions [… but] despite the variations, we can make several generalizations. First, men were required to provide, or to help provide, for their wives and children, and in many cases for other family members. Second, in the face of danger, they had to protect these others as well. This is why so many pre-modern cultures had initiation rituals testing boys’ courage, perseverance, and competence.
In the past, societies needed proven men—especially at times of war and high risk. In the modern knowledge economy, men are simply not needed in the same way. It’s a mistake, though, to assume that men are, therefore, dispensable. It frustrates me that we have allowed society to diminish the role of the strong and responsible man—or have so dumbed down manhood so as to equate it with sex, beer, computer games, sports and foolish pursuits.
It can and should be argued, as this blog often does, that the risks we are and will be facing in our world will require tested, proven, and responsible men. This in no way precludes a role of strong women and women of character. But a clear template for men does seem to be missing.
Manning Up shows us how the challenge of coming of age for a young male in a culture without a desirable prescription for a positive and mature manhood, combined with a lack of guidance from older men, has resulted in something like the child-man phenomenon the author describes. In spite of what you might consider to be its flaws, the book does provide the reader with a greater awareness of social trends affecting not only our young men, but also women and society as a whole. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in what Earl, in this blog, terms man-making.
—Photo credit: Cookies and milk image from Shutterstock