Young men are postponing responsibility as long as possible, argues sociologist Michael Kimmel. And nobody's winning
In his new book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, sociologist and State University of New York professor Michael Kimmel traces the emergence of a new stage in the life of the North American male: the wasteland between ages 16 and 26.
During interviews with university students and young adults, and with families across the United States, Dr. Kimmel found that at an age when young men were once prepping for a life of serious work and grown-up relationships, they now bide their time in "Guyland" with the most extreme of distractions: binge drinking, fleeting sexual relationships and hazing their peers on campus.
As the average age of marriage and parenthood continues to inch upward, Dr. Kimmel argues that there is both less incentive for young men to get serious about their lives, and a degree of resentment directed at their female peers, who appear to be enjoying the fruits of feminism. So, where the Animal House crowd once dusted themselves off and grew up, their contemporary counterparts are keeping the party going as long as they can, he says. We reached Dr. Kimmel in New York .
Why examine this demographic?
I wanted to map this new stage of development, this time period between adolescence and adulthood, which once lasted a matter of months or maybe a year, and is now lasting a decade. I realized that I was also mapping a kind of social world, a space. What happens with North American kids is they graduate from high school and their parents say, "Okay, we're done." They send the kid off to school. The university has been completely withdrawing from its old model of in loco parentis. And in that vacuum you have 19-year-old guys basically teaching 18-year-old guys what it means to be a man. So who are these guys?
They don't really have a plan. In college they drift from hookup to hookup. They commit to a group of guys - "bros before hos." When they graduate, they don't have a sense of where they're going. They end up in a serial jobogomy - where they take a dead-end job, they leave it and take another dead-end job. This drift comes with a certain amount of anxiety - they don't know how the story is going to end. What's going on with the women in Guyland?
Women on campus are more goal-oriented, more career-focused. But guys basically run campus social life. So both women and men have to accommodate themselves to some of the most egregious examples of Guyland - binge drinking, hazing, hooking up, porn, video games and incessant obsession with sports and sports talk. Surely not all guys are behaving this way?
No, not every guy. But he lives in that world. He knows guys who do and he doesn't challenge them. It must vary from school to school, though?
It's not universal in terms of "rural" and urban schools. There's far less of the binge drinking, hazing, hooking-up culture at, say, the University of Toronto , than there is at the University of Western Ontario . If you're downtown at the bars on a Friday night in a college town and you get so blind-drunk that you fall on your face in the mid-dle of the street, someone's going to pick you up and they're going to know someone who knows you and they'll make sure you get back to your dorm. If you're at Columbia and you fall flat on your face blind-drunk in New York City , you will be robbed. You point out that older generations aren't in a rush to reform the situation.
There's a problem psychologists call the "fallacy of misplaced attribution," where you attribute your development to some trauma under the mistaken idea that "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger." I'm sorry, drinking yourself into oblivion and injuring or tattooing or branding your fellow classmates in some misguided attempt to prove your masculinity is not what made you a good father. A lot of the characters in the book are despicable. Some readers - especially women - could be forgiven for not caring about how life turns out for them. Why should we care?
Because you have to deal with them. Currently, Guyland offers women two choices: You can be a babe or a bitch. So, the reason you should care is because these are fake choices. These are choices that will inhibit your ability to develop your career plan and your life plan the way you want to, to get your career going, have a relationship, get married and have children, if that's what you want. But in the end men still run the world. There still aren't many Fortune 500 CEOs who are women.
That has to do with parenthood. Because guys still don't share housework and child care, and that responsibility falls on the shoulders of women, guys have a much easier time with rising up the corporate ladder. If Guyland could prepare young men to be better fathers, they'll spend more time at home. Which will free women to balance work and family. Gender equality isn't a zero-sum game - it's a win-win. So, what will work?
We make a terrible mistake when we assume that helicopter parenting is the same thing as involved parenting. We do our children a disservice if we constantly intervene for them. I have this idea of what I call power-strip parenting. You help keep your kid grounded. You help them plug in. Then, if there's an overload, you run interference. I'm especially advising parents to stay connected with their children after they go off to university. It's crucial for dads. I can't tell you how many guys over the course of the interviews had this utterly clichéd experience: "I called home last weekend and my dad answered and I said, 'Hi dad' and he said, 'Hold on, I'll get your mother.' " Your son Zachary is 9 - do you now feel pressure to spare him from Guyland?
No, not spare him, but help him navigate his way through it. We were reading Harry Potter the other day and Dumbledore says to the students at Hogwarts [ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry], "It takes great courage to stand up to your enemies, but it takes even greater courage to step up to your friends." Zachary took that in and said, "Whoa. When you see your friends doing something wrong or bad, it's really hard to say, 'Stop.' " That's the kind of courage guys need, not the courage to drink several cases of beer in a sitting. Are you optimistic about the future of young men?
The most depressing four words in all educational circles these days are "boys will be boys." It's a posture of resignation. What we're saying when we say "boys will be boys" is boys will be violent, rapacious animals. I think that's male-bashing. I think we can do better.