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Grow Up? Eh, Maybe Next Decade

The great John D. MacDonald saw the trend back in 1975: “But there are one hell of a lot more grown-up ladies than grown-up men” (The Dreadful Lemon Sky).  Or, more recently, Tony Soprano, who complains, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?”

Several recent books say the same thing.
In Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, Kay Hymowitz, argues that a “major demographic event” has happened in the last decades.  Men in their 20s and early-30s have forged a new life stage, “preadulthood.”  Adolescence was the creation of the mid-20th Century.  Preadulthood is the creation of the 90s and 00s.  After they leave college, Hymowitz argues, men maintain the social and behavioral patterns—hanging out with buddies, playing video games, wearing adolescent clothes, watching Comedy Central,  Cartoon Network, and Spike, preferring boy-men actors such as Steve Carell, Adam Sandler, Luke and Owen Wilson, and Jim Carrey . . .  Women have the pressure of the biological clock, and they display more responsibility in school (more homework hours, more AP courses, more college enrollment, etc.).  They plan for tomorrow, while guys live for today in Guyland.
Guyland is a 2009 book by Michael Kimmel, with the subtitle “The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.”   To research it, Kimmel interviewed 400 men about their lives, their past, and their ambitions.  He concluded: “In another era, these guys would undoubtedly be poised to take their place in the adult world, taking the first steps toward becoming the nation’s future professionals, entrepreneurs, and business leaders.  They would be engaged to be married, thinking about settling down with a family, preparing for futures as civic leaders and Little League dads.  Not today.  Today, many of these young men, poised between adolescence and adulthood, are more likely to feel anxious and uncertain.  In college, they party hard but are soft on studying.  . . . After college, they perpetuate that experience and move home or live in group apartments in major cities, with several other guys from their dorm or fraternity.  They watch a lot of sports.  They have grandiose visions for their futures and not a clue how to get from here to there.”Gary Cross finds the same phenomenon in Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity.  Cross uncovers some interesting historical changes, such as a 1958 survey of men in which 63 percent of respondents believed that men should wear a tie when they go out to most places.  A grown-up male authority prevailed in those years, as the image of fathers in TV shows of the time demonstrated.  Today, grown-up men are hard to find in mass culture.  By the end of the 1980s, Cross notes, the father-figure was an object of mockery (Married with Children, The Simpsons, . . . up to That 70s Show).  He sees it reflected in real life, opening the book with: “Everywhere I turn today I see men who refuse to grow up—husbands of thirty-five who enjoy playing the same video games that obsess twelve-year-olds; boyfriends who will not commit to marriage and family; and fathers who fight with umpires or coaches at their son’s little league games.”
Tim Elmore relates the issue to media consumption, though minimizing the gender difference, in Artificial Maturity: Helping Kids Meet the Challenge of Becoming Authentic Adults.  Elmore argues that a misleading condition has set in, “artificial maturity,” in which youths seem all-too-aware of the world but don’t make mature judgments of it.  It happens because of two simultaneous factors: one, “Children are overexposed to information, far earlier than they’re ready”; and two, “Children are underexposed to real-life experiences far later than they’re ready.”  They get all kinds of grown-up info from TV, the Internet, and consumer culture, but they haven’t the experience and circumspection to comprehend it wisely.  They take in all kinds of complicated and overwhelming and unclear messages, but they can’t “self-regulate.”  They believe in their own autonomy, but they aren’t ready for responsibility, he says.  That’s why “the average college student is in touch with his or her mom or dad eleven times a day,” while “80 percent of students plan to return home after college.”  Elmore’s book proceeds to show parents and mentors how to avoid the problem.
In my own small experience, I’ve noticed the change in this way.  When I started teaching in the late-1980s, I found seniors entering my office for their last degree check impatient to get out and move on.  They were tired of college and looked forward to the workplace and a paycheck.  As the years have passed, I’ve found, graduating students face the world increasingly with trepidation, some of them actually saying to me, “I don’t want to go.”  The weak job market is part of the problem, but not all of it.  They like the safety of school and fear the independence of adulthood.  They’d rather stay on campus.
When students love the college atmosphere so much that they don’t wish to depart, colleges should take it as a sign of their own failure.  Higher education hasn’t fully accomplished its personal/social task.  After four years of coursework and social stuff, students should be eager to go.  They should feel educationally qualified and personally impatient.  When they feel the urge to get the heck out, in fact, college has succeeded.
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