February 23, 2011

What's behind the man-child phenomenon?

Here's a summary from the WSJ on man-children and the women who are annoyed to date them. It's good overall but still needs some corrections.

The author does get the timing right:

For most of us, the cultural habitat of pre-adulthood no longer seems noteworthy. After all, popular culture has been crowded with pre-adults for almost two decades. Hollywood started the affair in the early 1990s with movies like "Singles," "Reality Bites," "Single White Female" and "Swingers." Television soon deepened the relationship, giving us the agreeable company of Monica, Joey, Rachel and Ross; Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer; Carrie, Miranda, et al.

But, as with every other social commentator, she doesn't know that this means it reflects the massive decline in violence and general wildness.

It doesn't have to do with more people going to college since the 1980s, which would cause more young males to delay marriage, etc., by an additional four years than if they had not gone to college. That predicts that pre-1980, the minority of males who did go to college would show man-child behavior, but they did not.

The same goes for "our increasingly labyrinthine labor market," which throws up further obstacles and delays for males on their way to establishing their knowledge-economy career. But that predicts that males who aren't going to college and aren't part of the knowledge economy wouldn't turn into man-children. Yet just visit any blue-collar or middle-class area, and you will find just as high a fraction of 20 and 30-something males dithering away their time with their Xbox 360, Spike TV, internet porn, and making runs to 7-11 for subsistence.

Because the shift away from maturing and toward man-childishness cuts across all classes, even if some more than others, all economic arguments are weak at best. The larger social change must be something that has affected all classes. The plummeting rate of violence, drug use, etc., is just such a change: when you perceive a longer life because the world has become less violent, then you delay milestones more than before. And everyone is a lot less subject to physical threats, a lot less drugged out than before.

So, Hymowitz's characterization of today's guy as a "boy rebel" who buys Maxim's "entirely undomesticated" philosophy is off the mark. More like "infantilized." Some dork who never talks to girls and wastes all his time with his frat buddies playing video games is the opposite of an untamed rebel -- he's built his own version of the domestic prison, where he is a happy slave. Truly undomesticated rebels have more or less died off since the decline in violence; indeed that's just another way of phrasing what happened. There are no more Jeff Spicolis in the average American high school, no more smokin' in the boys room, or any of that stuff.

True, the man-child doesn't do what he's told, as far as settling down and starting a family goes, but it's not because he's out roaming wild and loving-and-leaving a series of girls.

Here she comes much closer to what's causing this shift:

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.

Obviously "women moving ahead" in the economy is not it, because that began during the 1970s, yet men of the '70s and '80s didn't let that affect their self-image. Nope, those were two of the most testosterone-charged decades of the past 200 years.

It gets down to their roles as protectors and providers -- and, Hymowitz forgot to mention, as lovers. Those are basically the three jobs that females look to males for: to aggress against someone else for gain or protect his own social circle against this type of aggression coming from outside, to be good provider dads, and to sweep her off her feet and go along with her on a carefree and exciting love adventure.

Since violence and promiscuity have plummeted over the past 20 years, guys' roles as fighters and lovers are not in such high demand as they were before. The only one left is the provider role. In other times and places, being a good provider might have required physical prowess, as when we were hunter-gatherers, or pastoralists tending to herds (and driving away anything or anyone who threatened the herd), or even the typically feminized farmer stooped over yanking weeds out of the ground, but who also had to chop firewood, repair his property, and chase off trespassers.

Making a living by sitting still all day, however, and providing for wife and kids that way doesn't offer much in the way of masculine dignity. As she points out, if a guy is wandering in this kind of existential drift, he might see little else to do but block it out and self-medicate with a beer and a five-hour session of Grand Theft Auto IV multiplayer.

At the same time, we should focus on the demand-side and not just the supply-side in the market for males. If females really wanted someone more bold, ambitious, exciting, and manly -- "Where have all the cowboys gone?" -- then why aren't entrepreneurial males stepping in to give them what they want? If this were a temporary mismatch, OK; but it's been a persistent pattern for about two decades now.

In reality, girls themselves have become incredibly boring over this same time period, just as the average guy has, reflecting the decline in violence. As much as they may gripe about it, they want a declawed and neutered husband. Consider by contrast two of the hit singles from the Footloose soundtrack. Bonnie Tyler expresses her desire for a fighter-and-protector male in "Holdin' Out for a Hero," while in "Let's Hear it for the Boy" Deniece Williams easily forgives all of her lover's superficial defects because "what he does, he does so well -- makes me wanna yell!" Those damsel-in-distress and boy-crazy mindsets have all but evaporated by now, though.

With female demand asking only for provider males, then, it's not very likely that they'll end up being supplied with stoic and courageous partners, not in a service-and-knowledge economy at any rate. There are some spots open in that way of making a living that allow a guy to kick ass, lead a team, and so on, but those jobs are the exception.

So this is just a case of people complaining about the unfair trade-offs of real life. If women want more of a manly man, they must accept more infidelity and higher divorce rates. If they want to avoid those, then they must accept that he won't be a cowboy with steel nerves but more of a man-child who wants to provide for the kids and then be left alone to putter around in the den or the video game room.


  1. You've posted data here on the decline of violence in recent decades, IIRC, but I don't remember seeing any on a decline is promiscuity. Is that really right? If so, why is the popular idea of what's going on so out of sync?

  2. Your blog should really be titled "kure no aki", not "aki no kure" if you want to be correct about it.

  3. "but I don't remember seeing any on a decline is promiscuity."

    I've mentioned the Youth Risk Behavior Survey a couple times. It's a nationally representative sample of high schoolers, done every other year starting in 1991.

    They ask about if you've ever had sex, are currently active, had sex before age 13, have had 4+ partners already, use a condom if you do have sex, have had sex ed, etc. All of those go strongly in the less-wild direction since it started in 1991.

    Plus there's the teen pregnancy rate that peaked circa 1990. And STDs among young people are way down. Herpes is virtually unknown to people under age... I don't remember, 25 or so.

    I don't know why the popular idea is the exact opposite. Young people are the most wild and dangerous, relative to other age groups, all else being equal. So by always believing that they're going out of control, you will often mis-classify a generation of well behaved people as needing supervision, but you'll never overlook a cohort of the devil's children.

  4. "Your blog should really be titled "kure no aki", not "aki no kure" if you want to be correct about it."

    I'll let Basho know about your correction to his haiku.

  5. Hahahaha! Good, I thought you were being literal about it (the end of autumn), and not quoting Basho.



  6. Ultimately it doesn't matter. There are always challenges in any era. Jeff Spicoli is no more a man than some video game playing man-wimp. Different eras enable different behaviors. Being unproductive socially is not better than being unproductive by yourself, although it produces more excitement and better stories. But the things that are difficult and characterize a man are the same.

  7. "I don't know why the popular idea is the exact opposite."

    Because now that everyone acts androgynous the focus is on the act of sex, not being man and woman (i.e sexually charged beings). Or else its because in this infantilised age adults act like kids and obsess about the sex act because its so naughty and forbidden.

    - Breeze

  8. Recently heard a song called "Where You At" by Jennifer Hudson which is pretty much the opposite of those forgiving tunes you mentioned. The narrator is sick and tired of her underclass boyfriend not transforming himself into a model of bourgeois respectability. As a farmer partisan, I approve.


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