When I first read Kay Hymowitz‘s recent article for the Wall Street Journal, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It’s a great read, and raises a question many well-educated, single and frustrated women have been asking themselves in recent years: “Where Have the Good Men Gone?” With images of the gallant, chivalrous prince sweeping the princess off her feet still lingering on their minds, some women may be surprised to find that their boyfriend’s notion of romance involves pausing the Playstation long enough to feed her a slice of pizza. The frustration expressed in Ms. Hymowitz’s piece was loud and clear. It brought forth images of an angry princess, awaking from a hundred year slumber having had dreams of her very own Prince charming sweeping her off her feet, only to find a Seth Rogen look-a-like smiling down at her, seemingly as bemused as she about what he ought to do next. However, digging beneath Ms. Hymowitz lament at the current status of “Pre-adult” boys (read, ‘boys stuck in a post-adolescent “limbo”‘), it seems the problem may be less that modern men pale in comparison to the gallant and chivalrous specimens of yestercentury, but rather that the incentives at play in today’s dating world are very different from those that governed relationships in the not too distant past. In response to these changing incentives, young people (both men and women) have altered their behaviour. What seems to have lagged behind are expectations. Viewed in that light, Ms. Hymowitz’s frustration at the state of the modern man is as much a result of outdated expectations and standards as it is due to the lengthening of the modern male’s path to adulthood (as she perceives and defines it).
It is important to note that the definition of “adulthood” Ms. Hymowitz advocates is one in which marriage and fatherhood are practically the only criteria. Asked recently whether all unmarried men are “pre-adults”, she responded:
“A man does not have to be married to be an adult, nor does a woman. But adulthood has always been intertwined with marriage and children IN EVERY SOCIETY. That’s because rearing the next generation is about the most important thing we do. I don’t mean that in a sappy way. I’m thinking in terms of social needs here.” [no emphasis added]
While her concern for social needs is admirable, the heavy weighting she ascribes to marriage and procreation in determining men’s maturity and status among adults creates a kind of circular logic: You’re immature unless you’re married; and women are looking for mature men to marry. The bachelor remains immature until he is married. In an age with more people getting advanced degrees than ever before, the average age of marriage is shifting upwards as more people defer marriage in favour of pursuing more education and career fulfillment. But, as Ms. Hymowitz stated when asked to support her claim that “most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo” with some actual data:
“The data is this: the average age of marriage for men is 28, considerably higher among college educated men. That means a decade or more with few family responsibilities.”
And by her criteria, familial responsibility is a litmus test of adulthood. These standards were once prevalent in bygone eras, where with higher education limited to the wealthy, and very few people migrating very far from their childhood homes, the great social pressure to marry and produce off-spring almost as soon as a man was out of his teens was more understandable: extended bachelor years implied irresponsibility and immaturity and other such undesirable traits in a potential husband and father. Ms. Hymowitz finds herself applying the mores of a bygone era to the new economy and new reality of the modern generation.
In this new generation, young people are faced with greater choices and greater career potential. They can travel around the world cheaper than in any previous generation, they are under less pressure to marry early and are encouraged to “find themselves” and enjoy their lives in a society that has become more and more focused on individual satisfaction than ever before. Women are also more educated, more sexually liberated and more independent than they have ever been. This new world is a world with radically different incentives and opportunities than those that existed in the not too distant past. Men and women alike have responded by deferring marriage, gaining more degrees than their forebears, and generally catering to their own needs and desires with fewer pressures from society to “settle down” than was once the norm. For today’s “me” generation, we want it all, and we want it all now. In this regard, women are no different from men. Indeed, while Ms. Hymowitz’s stereotypically characterizes young men as “aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers”, she ignores the fact that many of today’s young women could be stereotypically characterized in similarly unflattering (and equally sexist) terms describing their shopaholic tendencies, modern “sexually liberated” attitudes to casual sex and living in pre-pubescent princess fantasies waiting eagerly for prince charming to sweep them off their feet. While many of today’s men may lack the romanticized (exaggerated?) chivalry of their predecessors from the mid-20th century, many of today’s women are also not the demure, ladylike and refined women who were once wooed by their gallant male counterparts.
I agree with Ms. Hymowitz that without the social pressure to marry that once forced men to abandon their self-indulgent, pre-adult, bachelor revelry in their early 20s, men have adapted. They are now living comparatively responsibility free, narcissistic lives, unwinding with video-games and hobbies that provide short-term pleasure and living as they please from one day to the next. These changes are representative of a general cultural slide towards a more narcissistic and hedonistic society. It is quite understandable that women seeking husbands would see these developments as quite a departure from their idealized male counterparts, based on old movies starring Humfrey Bogart and Sean Connery. But it would seem these changes have been quite good for men. The women’s sexual liberation movement has meant men can “get the ‘milk’ without buying the ‘cow'” as the saying goes; women’s educational achievements, career accomplishments and earning potential have reduced the pressure on men to “bring home the bacon”; men over all have lower expectations to live up to, and can basically be more self-indulgent, without a biological clock urging them towards marriage and fatherhood (or adulthood, as Ms. Hymowitz defines it).
These changes should not be too surprising. The gallantry and chivalry of yesteryear’s men (their “responsibility, fortitude, stoicism, courage and fidelity” as Ms. Hymowitz declares in her wistful lament of a highly romanticized bygone era) were produced by the incentives of an era that rewarded such behaviour with a dominant role in society. With the incentives changing, we should expect different outcomes. Just as according to Ms. Hymowitz, “husbands and fathers have become optional” so too, gallantry and chivalry have become comparatively outmoded. To fault men for adapting to the new reality seems rather one-sided, given that the dating game has always taken two to tango. Women were once dependent on men for their survival, and marriage was once a woman’s primary means of achieving upward social mobility; however with equal access to education, equal employment opportunities and greater political representation, women are now far less dependent on men. As a result, the power dynamic in relationships have shifted from the lopsided male-centered relationships of previous centuries to relationships in which household chores are more equitably distributed, earning potentials are more equally matched and gender gaps in infidelity and promiscuity are rapidly closing. To judge men based on standards that applied in an outmoded world is at best unfair.
All that said Ms. Hymowitz’s message got somewhat muddled when I read another article of hers: “Why Men Pop the Question”. This article discusses the marriage proposal’s status as a primarily male dominated activity. She seems to jump from condemning the “archaic” behaviour of men in their elaborate proposals of marriage to embracing it as an important opportunity for a boy to flex his man-muscles. Ms. Hymowitz says: “the proposal temporarily reasserts instinctive sex roles in our egalitarian, hyper-civilized age”, as if implying that the proposal is somehow uncivilized or un-egalitarian; but she concludes with the observation that:
“…growing up in a culture whose idea of asking for a date is a midnight text message asking “u free?” a young man doesn’t face many opportunities to demonstrate manly initiative in the romance department. The proposal provides a ritual forcing him to show that he is thoughtful, capable, loving and sincere. In other words, that he will be a good husband and father.”
I’m baffled. It’s not clear whether Ms. Hymowitz wishes to assert that the chivalry men attempt to display through their elaborate proposals is but the last bastion of a dying set of outmoded and sexist mores, or whether she wishes to embrace it as a having value.
It seems Ms. Hymowitz’s frustrations then, are rooted in conflicting views regarding the changes that have taken place in the last several decades. And much of her frustrations are aimed at young men, or post-adolescent boys as she dubs them, who she urges to “Man Up” in her new book. My contention is that this frustration is misplaced. It would be better directed at the new society in general and not merely the men who have adapted to the changing times to maximize their pleasures, leisure and dating opportunity. The new rules have tipped the dating playing field more heavily in favour of men, partly as a result of their longer reproductive lives, as marriage is pushed later, placing greater pressure and frustration on women as their ticking biological clocks march on. Are these changes in the modern society good for women? Not really. Are they good for society? Hardly, at least not to the extent that marriage and successful parenting are good for society, as Ms. Hymowitz asserts. Are they good for men? Almost certainly. They have fewer responsibilities, lower expectations, less social pressure to conform to any particular mores, and easier access to sexually liberated partners in casual relationships. The trade-off for women has been greater independence and education, increased opportunities to realize their potential without being dependent on a husband. But it seems to have come at a cost. And Mz. Hymowitz’s articles seem to express frustration at this state of affairs, and a desire to blame the men who seem to be the beneficiaries of these changing moral standards. In that sense, her angry and frustrated reaction is quite understandable.