Posted on January 30, 2008, Shawn Sines Editorial: Beware the Child-Man?
Recently NPR (National Public Radio) featured a segment during its Talk of the Nation program with Kay Hymowitz, a writer and lecturer regarding her recent Op Ed piece from City Journal that was cut down and run in a recent Dallas Morning News Sunday Editorial space. Hymowitz espoused her view that something had changed in our society with young men. Something had allowed them to become less driven to fulfill the traditionally defined role of a male adult – namely marriage and procreation – instead she claimed young men in the 20s and 30s were delaying true adulthood and commitment favoring instead the proliferation of media like Maxim magazine, 24 hour cartoon channels and video games.
Hymowitz dubbed this new generation of young men with the derogatory title “Child-men”, saying that because of their attraction to these entertainment forms and their seeming lack of strong commitment skills that we had a maturity gap emerging within society. Young men were no longer rushing to the altar or marrying childhood sweethearts and she seems to place the cause of this on games for one. These “Child-men” came to light because she had spoken with a number of young women and these ladies had decried the lack of good candidates for marriage on the traditional timescale.
Now I won’t refute that there has been a change in our society. I won’t argue that people (male and female) seem to be entering into traditional adulthood later with the average of married men aged 30 dropping 27% in the last 30 years, but I think she is examining the results not the causes and placing blame in the wrong place.
Do young men spend 2-3 hours an evening playing video games? Statistically yes, the rise in game play has said as much. Are they doing this in addition to the other “traditional” activities like watching sports or network television? The numbers say they are not. So instead of being the great catalyst of the man-slacker as she infers, I think we’re seeing a transition in the leisure activities and their content.
Not so long ago, the average mid-twentysomething had achieved most of adulthood’s milestones—high school degree, financial independence, marriage, and children. These days, he lingers—happily—in a new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. Decades in unfolding, this limbo may not seem like news to many, but in fact it is to the early twenty-first century what adolescence was to the early twentieth: a momentous sociological development of profound economic and cultural import.
Why is it bad to entertain aspects of childhood in adults? Must becoming an adult be all about responsibility and social pressure and nothing of fun? It seems to me she is judging the behaviors of a generation beyond her with the standards that no longer apply or are in flux. She says to put down the toys and accept your role but why is there no discussion of accepting your role and enjoying the toys along with that? She seems to indicate that these are unrelated possibilities.. that to be a full member of the community you must marry and have children because men do not engage in or become useful to society otherwise.. which seems a narrow view to me and one I see broken in my friends and acquaintances all the time.
I can speak from personal experience here about the changes in society toward marriage and adulthood. I was married at 18, I had my first child by 21. I was a social pariah for many years and both my wife and I suffered social backlash because we had taken a more traditional route to adulthood. Many of our friends waited until their 30s to even begin dating and having children. Sometimes merely because they felt societal pressure to be successful instead of happy. They placed the drive to be professionals and career focused on the top of the pile before becoming family oriented. In fact it often feels like in this day and age there is a stigma against those who marry young. The change in society is often attributed to the ’80s generation and their career obsession. This has become accepted to a large extent – especially when you consider that those same career obsessed yuppies waited until their mid-30s and beyond to procreate and “embrace adulthood” by Hymowitz’s definition.
Single Young Males, or SYMs, by contrast, often seem to hang out in a playground of drinking, hooking up, playing Halo 3, and, in many cases, underachieving. With them, adulthood looks as though it’s receding.
We see her proclaim that young men needed to put down the controller and grow up. Why is the controller the catalyst here? Isn’t it a good thing that men in society are stepping back from the burden of responsibility that drove many of our forefathers to an early grave and enjoying the fruits of our labor while we labor? Doesn’t this lead to happier men with longer lives because they are not resentful and angry at the responsibilities thrust upon them artificially by a society driving them to reproduce and become cogs in the social wheel?
Why is her ire so squarely focused on men and not women as well? Are these trends any different from the activities of young women who are often unwilling to surrender personal freedoms to be “shackled” by motherhood? The Sex and the City generation who see marriage as an anchor and drag on their personal lives, who embrace disposable relationships and are obsessed with designer clothing?
I think she is only looking at half the equation and drawing erroneous conclusions. She mentions that underachieving is a mark of these “Child-men” but I wonder if she’s using the same scale of achievement as the people she’s analyzing. Maybe we’re seeing a backlash in this generation after living with parents who were so focused on money and personal accomplishment that children were often a check in the box rather than the center of the family’s focus.
Hymowitz also equates the stunted Child-man growth with the emergence and popularity of Maxim and social comedies featuring immature male characters in the vein of The Forty-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but it is her focus on video games that of course is relevant to this editorial.
Nothing attests more to the SYM’s growing economic and cultural might than video games do. Once upon a time, video games were for little boys and girls—well, mostly little boys—who loved their Nintendos so much, the lament went, that they no longer played ball outside. Those boys have grown up to become child-man gamers, turning a niche industry into a $12 billion powerhouse. Men between the ages of 18 and 34 are now the biggest gamers; according to Nielsen Media, almost half—48.2 percent—of American males in that age bracket had used a console during the last quarter of 2006, and did so, on average, two hours and 43 minutes per day. (That’s 13 minutes longer than 12- to 17-year-olds, who evidently have more responsibilities than today’s twentysomethings.) Gaming—online games, as well as news and information about games—often registers as the top category in monthly surveys of Internet usage.
Unfortunately it is with statements like this that Hymowitz shows her cultural bias. She is of a generation before the proliferation and acceptance of gaming as an adult recreation. She admits that in her world view games are a child’s play activity. But the same considerations be said of the Television and its impact on children who grew up during the “Wonder Days” generations of the 50s and 60s.
We see entertainment forms change between generations and society adapts. Today most people would laugh if you tried to claim that it was silly for an adult to stop listening to the news on the radio and move over to the television set. We are simply seeing the transition of recreation and the acceptance of video games as a medium for recreation for all ages – just as we accept that fact when we examine television viewing.
Ironically, Hymowitz concludes her editorial with something that bothers me more than it likely should. She claims that Child-men are unable to form long term commitments… but isn’t that a long standing cultural stereotype? The man afraid to commit? How is it related to this latest social crisis? Responsibility is not generally something that comes without pressure and expectations. Then she wraps it all up in broad generalities that honestly apply to both men and women in modern society:
The SYM doesn’t read much, remember, and he certainly doesn’t read anything prescribing personal transformation. The child-man may be into self-mockery; self-reflection is something else entirely.
That’s too bad. Men are “more unfinished as people,” Kunkel has neatly observed. Young men especially need a culture that can help them define worthy aspirations. Adults don’t emerge. They’re made.
Unfortunately, there is some truth in this – literature is not the common entertainment form of this generation – video games, television and the Internet are. However, I don’t think the lack of “Less than Zero” being a cultural icon of the generation’s culture reflects a lack of self-reflection.
Men and women in the 20s and 30s all face the same harsh realization and reflection regarding their role in society, their personal goals, hopes and dreams – they just are not happening on the old timescale. We are healthy and prosperous as a society. Men and women are living much longer than even two generations ago because of healthcare advances and societal changes, isn’t it natural that these stages of growth would expand?
I don’t think any generation can sit in judgment on the former or the later with a fair eye. Our society is evolving exponentially as we deal with technological changes at an accelerating rate and it is pressures like that which force us to adapt on a scale unseen at any other point in human history.
Is there really a “Child-man” problem or is this more broad than Hymowitz suggests?