Although the picture goes back over 100 years, the events of the past two years have made it clear to everyone that we live in a bailout culture. This is just one way in which modern people seem fundamentally different from pre-modern people. (In Europe, the seeds may have been there somewhat earlier, but by the Enlightenment these tendencies had cleared a threshold so that they're visible to any observer.)
Most of those who are critical of the bailouts -- of homeowners, of investment banks, of people who bought crappy cars, of people who make terrible health choices, and so on -- invoke the image of a spoiled child who whines to his parents to make it all better when he gets himself into trouble in some predictable way. The message from this rhetorical frame is that we need to stop acting like babies, grow up, and behave like mature adults. Many notice how long it takes to reach the milestones of adulthood than it used to, which would seem to provide more evidence in support of the infantilization view.
However, couldn't we make another equally valid analogy to the spendthrift wife who, after ruining herself financially, tries to badger her husband into transferring more of his earnings to her? In this view, the problem is that we've become feminized, so that the lesson is to stop acting like girls and start taking it like a man.
In this case of our bailout mentality, the two ideas about modernization give the same result, since both bratty children and wives with a hole in their pocket scream for bailouts. So, what other changes that modern people show would help us to distinguish between the two causes? Both could be going on, but one may play a stronger role. What we want to do is find some aspect of life where children or adolescents (of either sex) go one way and females (of any age) go another way. During a late night stroll I came up with as many examples I could think of, and it looks more like modernization = feminization, rather than infantilization. Here's what I thought up. Any other examples that would distinguish the two?
1. Violence and property crimes. Feminization. Young people, whether children or adolescents, are much more violent and destructive of property than adults, whereas females are less so than males. The trend since circa 1600 in Europe has been downward.
2. Emotional sensitivity and empathy (even including non-human animals). Feminization. Young people are more callous about these things than mature adults are, whereas females are more adept than males. The trend since at least the Enlightenment has been toward greater sensitivity.
3. Sexual behavior. Feminization. Here we can only compare adolescents to adults, but the former have wilder thoughts and behavior, whereas females behave more conservatively. The trend during the modern age is toward more vanilla sex lives. (Remember to look at the whole sweep of things, rather than compare Victorians to the Summer of Love. Don't leave out Samuel Pepys' diary, Casanova, The Canterbury Tales, etc., and don't leave out the 1940s-1950s and the '90s-2000s.)
4. Gross-out and slapstick humor. Feminization. Young people participate in and consume these forms of humor much more than adults (especially if we're talking about smaller children), whereas females are much more repulsed by it than males. The trend since the Elizabethan era and before has been sharply downward. The movie with the most bawdy humor that I've seen recently is Decameron, adapted from a book of tales written in the 14th century.
5. Respect for laws, order, structure, etc. Feminization. You all remember Lord of the Flies and Boyz n the Hood: younger people are much more rebellious against these things, whereas females cling to them more than males. The trend has been toward greater respect. I'm not talking about behavior that may or may not break the law, but about how elevated in people's minds these concepts are. Under feudalism or absolute monarchy, people were more cynical about law & order (although thankful that it protected them from harm), compared to modern people who see most law enforcers as the good guys (because they are).
6. Sense of adventure and curiosity. Feminization. Young people are more driven by the Indiana Jones impulse than adults, whereas females are less adventure-seeking than males. The trend has been toward less boldness in one's adventures. It's not that no one enjoys a good real-life adventure anymore, but compared to braving the high seas to find treasure or virgin land, crusading in exotic far-off countries, or living by transhumance pastoralism, you have to admit that we've become pretty wimpy.
7. Attention to our health. Feminization. Young people feel more invincible and behave more recklessly in health matters compared to adults, whereas females are more mindful than males. The trend has been toward a greater preoccupation with personal hygiene, diet, exercise with the explicit goal to improve health, and so on. This is not merely due to the fact that it's safer to visit doctors now than 200 years ago or earlier, since most of these changes involve lifestyle habits rather than hospital visits. And I'm not talking about specific diets -- like more meat or less meat -- but just to how much we dwell on the topic and act on it no matter which particular choices we make.
8. Aspbergery / autistic behavior. Infantilization. Younger people have less developed social skills, less developed "Theory of Mind" (i.e., appreciating that other people have their own minds and beliefs), are less tolerant of ambiguity, and are more literal-minded when interpreting someone else's words or actions. Females are more developed in these areas than males. The trend since at least the Enlightenment has been toward a more Aspbergery personality. We seem less dexterous in our social relations, we're more likely to rule out that another human being could hold an opposite viewpoint from our own (a classic test of autism is the "false belief task"), and we're less accepting of ambiguity and open interpretations -- as shown by the proliferation of grammar Nazis since the 18th century, who were wholly absent before.
9. Faith in the supernatural. Infantilization. Younger people aren't quite so committed to belief in the afterlife, spirits, etc., as older adults are, whereas females have stronger beliefs here than males. The trend since the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment has been toward a more materialist view of the universe. I don't want to include a discussion of "religion" because that covers so many different beliefs and behaviors, so I focused on just one aspect.
Just by the number of cases, feminization looks like a stronger explanation, especially when you weight each case by how important the change is in defining the shift from pre-modern to modernized societies.
You could object that these changes only show that we're more mature than infantilized -- that the infantilized view was just plain wrong to begin with, not one of several viable explanations. Still, the larger picture of how long we delay reaching milestones of adulthood -- having a sustaining job, courting and having sex, etc. -- would seem to rule out a "we're so mature now" view.
This isn't just some hairsplitting exercise, since these two ideas could predict different mechanisms for the change. For example, the change could be due to a higher or lower frequency of some genes, as the result of natural selection. The genes involved in keeping an organism in a youthful state (neoteny) is not the same as the ones that promotes feminized rather than masculinized features. If we had reliable methods of detecting natural selection within just 300 or 400 years, I'd look at genes that affect the concentration of sex hormones, how sensitive their receptors are, and so on, based on the feminization idea. Someone who thought the infantilization angle was more important would look at a different, somewhat overlapping set of genes, such as those that stimulate growth.