City Journal

Kay S. Hymowitz
Child-Man in the Promised Land
Today’s single young men hang out in a hormonal limbo between adolescence and adulthood.
Winter 2008

Selected Responses:

Sent by Bernard Chapin on 02-06-2008:

I found Ms. Hymowitz's definition of adulthood tenuous. The idea that owning a home is integral to the maturation process is accurate (although perhaps unwise at the present time), but I have not seen any data suggesting that a larger percentage of young homeowners are women rather than men. It seems rather unlikely even within the parameters of a world the author dubs the "New Girl Order."

With marriage, termed another aspect of adulthood, I believe Ms. Hymowitz’s propositions are misguided. This may be due to her making the mistake of analyzing men in isolation. This is a precarious method by which to reach a conclusion regarding the sexes. Males and females are symbiotic,and their behaviors have a direct effect on one another. She states that marriage rates are declining due to people getting married later,which she calls "a dramatic demographic shift." I believe her. Yet, for what reason do fewer men wish to get married nowadays? Ms. Hymowitz’s answer, immaturity, is spurious. Relying on group pathology is not legitimate. Indeed, these young fellows appear to be perfectly happy and fulfilled. The author errs here by failing to take into account the changed nature of the modern woman.

Let us contemplate the essence of this New Girl Order. Yes, the phenomenon is new, certainly it is female, but unquestionably it is disordered. The transcendence of women is nothing I will deny, however. In fact, I believe that America is a land imbued with female privilege. Affirmative action promises them the best jobs, placement at the best schools, and ensures that, should they be incompetent for the positions they are granted, it may not be held against them, as firing them is not easy. The rise in the size of the government promises more and more competition-free jobs. In these settings, efficiency and productivity are not requirements; oftentimes, such traits will even be frowned upon. Should the vagaries of life become too apparent, then the notion of "discrimination" will sooth them and become a purifier for any personal inadequacies they may possess.

The system will continue to be termed "anti-woman," even when that same system is led by a female president which may transpire in less than a year’s time (no doubt, in January of 2009, we will hear claims that the President of the United States and the Speaker of the House are just "figureheads" and "tokens" within the larger patriarchy). The end result of the transformation wherein women reign supreme is the creation of individuals who are empowered, less feminine, and highly unconcerned about the way males perceive them. In light of this eventuality, why would any men want to marry them? Alas, this is a question Ms. Hymowitz does not pose.

Perhaps the "Odyssey Years" are not an odyssey at all but an end in themselves. Is a permanent "new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance" preferable to being an indentured servant to a headmistress of the New Girl Order? To ask the question is to answer it. The author states that "Women complain about the 'Peter Pan syndrome'--the phrase has been around since the early 1980s, but is resurgent--the 'Mr. Not Readys,' and the 'Mr. Maybes.'" Given the nature of the present crisis, how could it be any other way? Submission is not a state most of us wish to enter.

Ms. Hymowitz equates becoming a husband and a father with growing up, but this is no longer the case. Government has taken sides in regards to the sexes. With its abuse of males in divorce and custody court (for example, consider a legal doctrine like "equitable paternity"), the Leviathan has effectively turned marriage into a juridical charnel house. It is the immature, as opposed to the mature, who fail to take public affairs into account before saying "I do." Avoiding the manage et trios which is the union of man, woman, and law is advisable and indisputably a decision made by a sober mind.

That "marriage and children" used to "turn boys into men" is granted, but I’d argue that it does no such thing today. Becoming a juridical offering, morphing into an ATM which dispenses "empowerment" for decades, and being held up as a neutered display that embodies the victory of our social engineers over biology are not outcomes in keeping with manhood. The situation illustrates the way in which boys are turned into serfs.

I do not know whether Tucker Max was right about female insecurity being "a gift that keeps on giving," but I do know that male ignorance about the social injustice of marriage in our new millennium is a gift upon which millions of women rely.

Sent by Amanda on 02-05-2008:

Thank you for writing this article! Married just under two years to a "child man," I finally have seen something accurately describing my husband's undeniable preference for playing video games over...pretty much anything else. One of the first of his "crew" to marry, I think sometimes he rebels and exercises his "child man" side simply to reassure his friends that he's still cool.

His friends are EXACTLY as described in your insightful article - the comparisons made here literally travel from one aspect of their lives to another, from their favorite reading material to their all-time favorite movies.

Happily married (we're both 26), I know my husband loves me, but it's tough sometimes to fight the urge to demand that he grow up, and quick. A friend forwarded your article to me, knowing that this is my life you're writing about, every single detail echoing my personal experience. As if you've been sitting in my living room taking notes for the past few years!

We want to start a family in a couple of years, and I'm encouraged by your description of Pollack and his delightful relationship with his son, which allows them both to be children, in their own right. I'm not trying to change my husband - I know who I married, and I love that man. But it's so nice to know that I'm not alone here, and that there are others who fit the same mold...and other girlfriends and wives like me, hoping that mold will reshape itself in time - into something a little more manly and mature, while retaining that boyish charm.

Sent by Timothy on 02-05-2008:

An interesting sub-theme to your article might be to examine what works, at least sometimes--and that is military service. Now even the military is schizo about this, as on the one hand the larger institution provides a lot of services and responsibilities for service members and families (from free rent to retirement pay to free health care), but on the other hand it asks a lot of you in terms of sacrifice and responsibility--lead people, be accountable, do things correctly or die, and so on. The difference in responsibility levels between a 32-year old SYM and a 23-year-old Marine sergeant is light years, especially if the latter has led troops in combat. It is ALL about accountability. Might be worth looking into.

Sent by Scott on 02-04-2008:

Very interesting read. You're on to something, but there is a female element to this as well: Young women facilitate the decline of young single males by not expecting more from them. American society has taught young women, through magazines and television, that they should become what the young single male wants.

Sent by Victor on 02-03-2008:

I am a 37-year-old man. Ms. Hymowitz is right. Young men being happy and doing what they want (as the article admits)? Outrageous! Awful! Terrible! Immature! Intolerable!

Everybody knows that young men have to stop doing what they want and/or makes them happy and marry some woman. This way, even if they are not happy, a woman would be able to do what she wants and to be happy. And, as everybody knows, the happiness of a woman is far more important than that of a man. As everybody knows, men are the beasts of burden of this society. They are only mature when they give up their dreams to fulfill the dreams of a woman.

So maybe he doesn't want to marry and have kids (like the boys in this article) and he wants to live without stress. This is so awfully immature. To be a fully grown-up man, he must do the following:

1. He must slave himself working 10 hours a day, to support a wife and kids he didn't really want, to buy a house in the suburbs he doesn't really need, and a SUV his wife nags him to buy. He must have a huge debt to buy everything his wife wants.

2. He must bear with an ever-nagging, ever-whining woman who is always dissatisfied if she doesn't get everything her way.

3. He must resign himself when sex dries up after some years of marriage and affection and kindness are a distant memory.

4. He must not complain when his wife decides that she is bored and divorces him, and he is stripped of all their assets and loses their children (the children he didn't want before they were born, but now wants most in the world).

5. He must pay for years child support for children whom he barely sees. In certain states, he must pay alimony for a woman who does not perform anything in return.

Only if he does all of this is he A GROWN UP. Not collaborating in his own destruction makes a man very immature.

Sent by Mark Johnston on 02-03-2008:

One other difference between the 1965 version of the 26-year-old male and today's edition: yesterday's guy almost certainly spent two years or so in the military. If nothing else, he learned to make his bunk, and if he opted for Beetle Bailey-esqe slackerhood over taking responsibility, he became the object of unending supervision from the non-commissioned officers and the unit's expert on how to scrub pots and pans in the mess hall.

Sent by Howard on 02-02-2008:

I would venture to say that much of what you see in today's males is a direct consequence of the upbringing they received from their single, divorced mothers, overwhelmingly female teachers, crude anti-male attitudes in school and tv. The society spends 30 years denigrating men and maleness and then wonders, where are the men? Ha!

You girls brought this on yourselves with your hyperanalysis and denial of intrisinic maleness. While at the same time relegating males to wallets and child makers. You wonder why you girls are merely pieces of meat, maybe if you treated men as more than a ticket to your cosmo dream, you might get somewhere.

Sent by J. Berger on 02-02-2008:

Excellent article. There are a couple of things going on here. First, men need male-only institutions in which to socialize them. The ugly converse to this is that any time women force their way into these arenas, men lose their interest. This is as true with specific examples such as the JayCees, the Friar's Club, Rotary, Lions, as it is with larger, general institutions such as the military and the workplace. These were places that men could enjoy camaraderie, hierarchy, and order. They respond to that. Now, look at the workplace: filled with often agressive women trying to act like men, diversity and sex harrasment training, politically correct (hence lame) Christmas parties. There's little in all of this for a masculine person to enjoy. The modern corporation fits perfectly with women, soft males (you know who you are), and gay men.

Secondly, the implicit exchange between men and women in marriage wasn't that they were trading their sexual freedom for security. The sex drive in men and women is apples and oranges. Not a fair trade. What was happening was women were giving up their autonomy in exchange for security and sexual monogamy. Men were giving up sexual freedom and the endless adolesence described in the article in exchange for responsibility over their family. They were respected in the community by other men because they had that authority in their family and exercised it well. Make the husband and wife co-equal in all matters, and you destroy that implicit exchange. Whey should we get married or remain married? So we can become Stupid Dad you see in all the sit coms and commercials? The pathetic fool who is (barely) a notch above his children and clearly subordinate to the wise, all knowing Mommy? It's not that hard to figure out.

To quote Chesterton: "Never take down a fence until you know for sure why it was put up."

Sent by Deb on 02-02-2008:

In television commercials, especially in the past five years, young men are portrayed as mentally and physically and emotionally inept, and proudly so. I found myself wishing for a military draft again. What young men need is to be wrenched away from their families and denied their comfort zones for at least four years. Kind of like what World War II did to a generation of men this country holds in high regard. Thanks so much for writing this article, I'm going to share it with a number of young men.

Sent by Stacey on 01-31-2008:

I was so incredibly impressed and stunned at the accuracy of this article. Ms. Hymowitz deserves the Pulitzer for this. I don't believe that anyone could have put this version of the 21st Century's Peter Pan Syndrome on paper any better than this. Kudos! And thank you for taking on one of the biggest perpetrators of this insane bend in the male species named Tom Leykis!

Sent by Pete Farmer on 01-30-2008:

Thank you for an excellent article on the prolonged adolescence of young males. I am 46 years old, and experienced something like it myself, even though I ultimately settled down to a happy marriage and family life.

One basic problem little-commented upon is that young men need places to go to be among men - exclusively men - to learn what manhood means, to measure themselves against other guys, to compete, to win or lose, and finally assume a place among others of their kind. They need access to mature men to set standards and keep them in line, much like a tough coach or hardened drill sergeant does, or used to do. The military used to serve this function widely in our culture - as a rite of passage that turned boys into men. Now, less than 5% of eligible American men serve in the military, and worse - from the standpoint of the development of maleness, women have pushed their way into the services, diluting what was once a purely male culture.

Today, mixed martial arts are so popular partly due to the simple fact that they feature no holds barred (with few exceptions) methods in violent, one-to-one contests. These employ martial arts methods to knock out, submit, or otherwise punish your opponent into giving up or losing on points. Blood flows, and the occasional bone gets broken, and the fans cheer wildly, not only men but some women, too.

Men remain adolescents into their 20s because the forces which formerly tore down and then remade a man's character are now largely absent from their lives. Young men also behave as they do because they are rewarded for doing so. In today's hook-up culture, commitment seems to be the furthest from young people's minds, and all seem to see it as sex without consequences.

However, the consequences are in fact profound. Not so long ago, young women saved their "pearl of great price" until marriage, and men knew it. The price of sexual relations was often marriage and a family. Today, however,young men do not have to pass the barriers of a woman's chastity, or her desire for marriage, nor do they have to commit in any manner. They just have to show up, and let the party begin. These men, enjoying the pleasures of the flesh denied to their elders outside of marriage or the pretense of one, are getting it for free. Why pay for something you can get for free?

The sad part about all of this is that deep down, most men want to fulfil the expectations of their fathers and reach full manhood, not the half-baked variety. Given some decent reasons for doing so, many would rise to the task. But I see almost no one in America calling upon them to do anything but spend and consume.

Sent by Douglas Gurney on 01-28-2008:

Well-written piece. But the biggest reason for young men's behavioral changes in the last 40 years was only briefly hinted at: The incredible ease with which young men can get women to have casual sex with them today versus 40 years ago.

I see this all the time. I own a nightclub which is popular among the 25-45 year old demographic (I'm 50). If you haven't seen the way young people hook up today, you literally would not believe it - and I'm in the heart of the Bible Belt!

I have lived in many places, countries, and cultures. This is a worldwide phenomenon. The behavior of men is simply a response (actually a quite logical one) to the changing behavior of women. Simply put, men are a breeding experiment run by women. You reap what you sow - and when a man can sow all he wants and leave the reaping to others, well, why not? The fact that it might be extremely detrimental to our society in the long haul does not concern men these days - any more than illegitimate children concerns many women.

Welcome to our Brave New World.

Sent by Charles Weigle on 01-28-2008:

I'm frustrated by Hymowitz's article. What she observes about modern men is mostly consistent with what I have observed, but she fails to offer any reasonable explanation for why it is happening, or any potential means to address it. Instead, the article degenerates into a shrill attack on the men themselves, as if somehow between 1970 and 2000 a new genetic breed of man appeared in America, one that is somehow incapable of growing up and is unworthy of American womanhood. Hymowitz attaches the epithet "child-man" to this new, inferior breed of man.

More thought needs to be given to the question of what happened in the last 40 years to bring about this situation. It might be useful to think about the things that have not changed. For one, marriage in this country has always been voluntary and based on mutual affection rather than parental pressure. People in the past did not get married because they were forced to, but because they wanted to, just as they do (or don't do) now. For another, men are still men, made of the same genetic material that their fathers and grandfathers were made of. As Hymowitz observes, boys generally become men as a result of getting married and having children, not the other way around. Even before the days of the "child-man," unmarried men were immature, restless, irresponsible. Why did they choose to become married men in the past? Why don't they choose to do so now?

It would seem that something has changed in the nature of marriage itself, and in the economic and social circumstances that surround the decision to get married. One problem is that risks of marriage for men have greatly increased, while the rewards have decreased. Two historical factors seem to underly this change: feminism and no-fault divorce.

Feminism has changed things not because "men are intimidated by strong women" (men always have been intimidated by women, strong and otherwise), but because it has changed the inherent trade-offs of marriage to put the husband at a disadvantage. Feminist doctrine requires wives to deny or devalue the husband's role as provider and protector of the household. This is a role that men are well-suited for and find satisfaction in. Instead, wives are told to look to their husband primarily for companionship and emotional support. This is something that men are less suited for and find less satisfying. Their failure to meet the standards of emotional availability required by their wives often leads to resentment on the part of the wives and frustration for the husband, who senses that his wife wants him to be a grown-up without being a man.

In addition, because it is no longer acceptable to talk about "women's work" or "men's work," the division of labor becomes a source of strife rather than an efficient use of resources. Every household chore must be the subject of litigation.

The ultimate risk for the husband is that his wife's resentment might lead to a divorce. In a situation where courts still favor wives in child custody situations, divorce for the husband can mean financial ruin and the loss of his children.

The question might better be asked, why would a young man want to get married now? Sex, apparently, is generally available. Companionship is also available, and buddies make far less emotional demands than wives do. Wives can no longer be expected to provide domestic comforts (e.g., good cooking) that men value but are generally not very good at providing for themselves. (Although I would suggest that most wives still do provide these comforts, but that feminism has taught them to do so with a sense of resentment).

The question might also be asked, why would a woman want to get married? She can make her own living. The police can protect her from the bad people. Life doesn't require that much heavy lifting anymore.

It seems that the only reason left to get married is to have children. This is not to be underestimated, since children give purpose in life, introduce new levels of love and affection, and still provide a degree of security in old age that cannot be provided by government programs or careful retirement savings. For men, though, there is the greater risk of losing those children through divorce.

The frustrating thing about Hymowitz's article is that she places all the blame for this situation on the "child-men." Women surely can't be completely innocent in this breakdown. After all, the feminist movement in the 60s and 70s was a change in the expectations of women. They demanded that men change to meet those new expectations, but it appears that the men did not change that much. They are still the same "pigs" that they were back then. Only now they don't have any reason to "grow up" by getting married, maybe not so much to gain from it and a lot to lose. Maybe, as it turns out, a man needs a wife like a fish needs a bicycle.

As Hymowitz points out in her book, marriage is fundamentally important to the health of our civilization. And a healthy marriage is fundamentally useful for the people who choose to enter into it. Still, many no longer choose to enter into it. Understanding why that happens will require something better than a sneering new epithet for unmarried young men.

Sent by Jackie Coffee on 01-28-2008:

I read your article with great interest. I was hoping you'd be more forthright in diagnosing the problem of today's SYMs, but alas you just pussyfooted (forgive the pun) around the real issue. Which as I see it, is that women have given away the candy store.

Of course Freud didn't have to ask what men want; that's a slam dunk. And they DO NOT feel threatened by female "empowerment." On the contrary, they consider it a no-strings-attached, gratuitous-sex-for-life, American Express card for which the bill never arrives.
What enables the child-man to "put off family into the hazily distant future" is the law of supply and demand: every child-man knows that the number of women willing to get horizontal after a hamburger and a movie vastly exceeds the number of "squares" who won't. And that's the 800-pound Transformer in the room that everyone ignores.

Love City Journal & have been waiting with bated breath for the Winter issue.

Sent by Donna Stadler on 01-27-2008:

Two things: the pill and abortion. Men used to get married to have sex. Fear of pregnancy prevented most girls from "giving in," and Papa with a shotgun helped. From there, we have arrived at the place where any guy can find a girl any night who will have sex immediately with him. Why should he get married? No one is demanding or even asking him to grow up.

Divorced parents don't help. Who wants to get married and be unhappy like his parents were?

Baby boomers thought they were so smart. Get rid of the stigma of divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancies, prevent unwanted pregnacies or kill the "accident," and won't life be grand.

Only thing is, we ruined our kids with the experiment. Maybe we should stop playing God and get back to some of the basics: grow up, get an education, get a job, get married, have kids, and then won't life be grand. Or at least better than now.

Wars have made a lot of men "grow up" too, sadly. I'll bet the guys in the all-volunteer military will end up being the mature ones. Many of the guys that managed to avoid the draft during Viet Nam are now sporting graying ponytails, still smoking "grass," and divorced several times. They have spawned the "cretins" you have described that are ruining our society. I wouldn't want to be a young woman today.

Sent by F Wallace on 01-27-2008:

Ms. Hymowitz is wrong. SYMs are not avoiding marriage. They are priced out of it, and of relationships. Young men in their thirties in the 1970s could buy their own houses.
Now, even high-earning MBAs cannot buy their own houses, a prerequisite for marriage and family.

Women with their own earnings require a "premium" over their own status/money/social power, or future expectation of same. "Sex and the City" was more a tale of high-powered young women finding A-Listers unwilling to commit. Because they want the few men with more social power than they possess.

Young men are substituting video games and childish diversions because they lack the ability to gain a woman's intimacy that will lead to marriage. Theodore Dalrymple writes about this extensively in "Life at the Bottom." Even lower-earning women choose bad boys over the regular decent guys. Because women want men with higher status than their own.

Sent by Gregg Holmes on 01-27-2008:

In your article you say that women ask the question, "How did this perverse creature come to be?" In my humble opinion, women share the biggest part of the blame. When the ladies started living with guys before marriage, having kids out of wedlock, and hooking up like guys, things went downhill. Sure, we men are to blame. But the woman has always managed to control the man by basically demanding marriage. Not anymore! So you can blame the men if you want to, but I suggest women look in the mirror for the creator of the child-man

Sent by Robert Butsch on 01-27-2008:

Your op-ed piece ("The Child-Man" in the Dallas Morning News) struck a chord with my friend, Justin. Justin is many years younger than I. He's 26, right in the 10-ring of your putative, monolithic Single Young Male demographic. He asked me to compose this in his place since he's getting oiled up for a crazy week in Vegas with a few buddies before stopping in Phoenix on the way back in case there are some Super Bowl tickets left to score. Besides, writing isn't a skill of much use to him in his promising financial-services career.

Anyway, he would like you to pass on his personal thanks to all your New Girl Order, hyper-achieving comrades who have done so much to make his current lifestyle possible. He says there's a ton of them out there in the increasingly female-friendly workplace where he spends his 60-hour weeks, and they've been just super cooperative.

This situation has paid off especially handsomely in the case of Mary, a well-employed and very intelligent and attractive young woman, and presently Justin's main weekend diversion. It seems there's some guy -- also 26, strangely enough -- wanting desperately to marry her. But this guy doesn't have Justin's hunk factor or care-free personality; plus it's pretty obvious, given the career the guy has chosen, that he's never going to make it out of the mid-five-figure income mire. The contemporary adulthood into which Mary is emergent appears to have informed her that there's no way this is what a genuine New Girl wants out of life, so she's made herself regularly available for Justin.

Of course, Justin does sometimes have to sacrifice a little Playstation 3 time to keep Mary company on shopping sprees. Occasionally he even finds it necessary to travel with her to one of her special places. But if things get out of hand, he says he'll just move on. No big thing.

By the way, he says he's tried to work up a little guilt over his pointless, vapid existence, but so far with no success. It's just way too cool. So, once again, a great big thank you from my favorite SYM, Justin.

About half of American males aged 18 to 34 play video games--and do so for over two hours a day.
About half of American males aged 18 to 34 play video games—and do so for over two hours a day.

It’s 1965 and you’re a 26-year-old white guy. You have a factory job, or maybe you work for an insurance broker. Either way, you’re married, probably have been for a few years now; you met your wife in high school, where she was in your sister’s class. You’ve already got one kid, with another on the way. For now, you’re renting an apartment in your parents’ two-family house, but you’re saving up for a three-bedroom ranch house in the next town. Yup, you’re an adult!

Now meet the twenty-first-century you, also 26. You’ve finished college and work in a cubicle in a large Chicago financial-services firm. You live in an apartment with a few single guy friends. In your spare time, you play basketball with your buddies, download the latest indie songs from iTunes, have some fun with the Xbox 360, take a leisurely shower, massage some product into your hair and face—and then it’s off to bars and parties, where you meet, and often bed, girls of widely varied hues and sizes. They come from everywhere: California, Tokyo, Alaska, Australia. Wife? Kids? House? Are you kidding?

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. Some call this new period “emerging adulthood,” others “extended adolescence”; David Brooks recently took a stab with the “Odyssey Years,” a “decade of wandering.”

But while we grapple with the name, it’s time to state what is now obvious to legions of frustrated young women: the limbo doesn’t bring out the best in young men. With women, you could argue that adulthood is in fact emergent. Single women in their twenties and early thirties are joining an international New Girl Order, hyperachieving in both school and an increasingly female-friendly workplace, while packing leisure hours with shopping, traveling, and dining with friends [see “The New Girl Order,” Autumn 2007]. 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.

Freud famously asked: “What do women want?” Notice that he didn’t ask what men wanted—perhaps he thought that he’d figured that one out. But that’s a question that ad people, media execs, and cultural entrepreneurs have pondered a lot in recent years. They’re particularly interested in single young men, for two reasons: there are a lot more of them than before; and they tend to have some extra change. Consider: in 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively. And the percentage of young guys tying the knot is declining as you read this. Census Bureau data show that the median age of marriage among men rose from 26.8 in 2000 to 27.5 in 2006—a dramatic demographic shift for such a short time period.

That adds up to tens of millions more young men blissfully free of mortgages, wives, and child-care bills. Historically, marketers have found this group an “elusive audience”—the phrase is permanently affixed to “men between 18 and 34” in adspeak—largely immune to the pleasures of magazines and television, as well as to shopping expeditions for the products advertised there. But by the mid-1990s, as SYM ranks swelled, marketers began to get their number. One signal moment came in April 1997, when Maxim, a popular British “lad magazine,” hit American shores. Maxim strove to be the anti-Playboy-and-Esquire; bad-boy owner Felix Dennis sniffed at celebrity publishers with their tired formulas. Instead, he later observed, the magazine’s creators adopted the “astonishing methodology of asking our readers what they wanted . . . and then supplying it.”

And what did those readers—male, unmarried, median age 26, median household income $60,000 or so—want? As the philosophers would say, duh. Maxim plastered covers and features with pouty-lipped, tousled-haired pinups in lacy underwear and, in case that didn’t do the trick, block-lettered promises of sex! lust! naughty! And it worked. More than any men’s magazine before or since, Maxim grabbed that elusive 18- to 34-year-old single-college-educated-guy market, and soon boasted about 2.5 million readers—more than GQ, Esquire, and Men’s Journal combined.

Victoria’s Secret cover art doesn’t fully explain the SYM’s attraction to Maxim. After all, plenty of down-market venues had the sort of bodacious covers bound to trigger the young male’s reptilian brain. No, what set Maxim apart from other men’s mags was its voice. It was the sound of guys hanging around the Animal House living room—where put-downs are high-fived; gadgets are cool; rock stars, sports heroes, and cyborg battles are awesome; jobs and Joni Mitchell suck; and babes are simply hot—or not. “Are there any cool jobs related to beer?” a reader’s letter asks in a recent issue. Answer: brand manager, beer tester, and brewmaster.

Maxim asked the SYM what he wanted and learned that he didn’t want to grow up. Whatever else you might say about Playboy or Esquire, they tried to project the image of a cultured and au courant fellow; as Hefner famously—and from today’s cultural vantage point, risibly—wrote in an early Playboy, his ideal reader enjoyed “inviting a female acquaintance in for a quiet discussion of Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” Hearing this, the Maxim dude would want to hurl. He’d like to forget that he ever went to school.

Maxim happily obliges. The editors try to keep readers’ minds from wandering with articles like “Confessions of a Strip Club Bouncer.” But they rely heavily on picture-laden features promoting the latest skateboards, video games, camcorders, and other tech products, along with an occasional Q-and-A with, say, Kid Rock—all with the bare minimum of print required to distinguish a magazine from a shopping catalog or pinup calendar. Playboy’s philosophy may not have been Aristotle, but it was an attempt, of sorts, to define the good life. The Maxim reader prefers lists, which make up in brevity what they lose in thought: “Ten Greatest Video Game Heroes of All Time,” “The Five Unsexiest Women Alive,” “Sixteen People Who Look Like They Absolutely Reek,” and so on.

Still, Maxim is far from dumb, as its self-mockery proves. The Maxim child-man prides himself on his lack of pretense, his unapologetic guyness. The magazine’s subtext seems to be: “We’re just a bunch of horny, insensitive guys—so what?” What else to make of an article entitled “How to Make Your Girlfriend Think Her Cat’s Death Was an Accident”? “The only thing worse than a show about doctors is a show about sappy chick doctors we’re forced to watch or else our girlfriends won’t have sex with us,” the editors grumble about the popular (with women) Grey’s Anatomy.

The Maxim child-man voice has gone mainstream, which may explain why the magazine’s sales were flat enough for Dennis to sell it last summer. You’re that 26-year-old who wants sophomoric fun and macho action? Now the culture has a groaning table of entertainment with your name on it. Start with the many movies available in every guy-friendly genre: sci-fi flicks like Transformers, action and crime movies like American Gangster, comedies like Superbad, and the seemingly endless line of films starring Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, and the “Frat Pack,” as USA Today dubbed the group of young male comedians that includes Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Owen and Luke Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Carell.

With a talent for crude physical comedy, gleeful juvenility, and self-humiliation, the Frat Packers are the child-man counterparts to the more conventional leads, like George Clooney and Brad Pitt, whom women and Esquire editors love. In Old School (2003), three guys in their thirties decide to start a college fraternity. Frank the Tank (the moniker refers to his capacity for alcohol), played by Ferrell, flashes his saggy white derriere streaking through the college town; the scene is a child-man classic. In 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Carell plays a middle-aged nerd with a large action-figure collection but no action. In one guy-favorite scene, a beautician painfully waxes Carell’s hirsute chest; as Carell pointed out later, this was a “guy thing, this sadistic nature that men have to see other men in non-life-threatening pain.”

Even though the networks must be more restrained, television also has plenty of “stupid fun” (as Maxim calls a regular feature), gross-out humor, and even low-level sadism for child-man viewers. This state of affairs is newer than you might think. Apart from sports programming and The Simpsons, which came along in the early 1990s, there wasn’t a lot to make young men pick up the remote. Most prime-time television appealed to women and families, whose sensibilities were as alien to dudes as finger bowls.

Today, the child-man can find entire networks devoted to his interests: Spike TV runs wrestling matches, Star Trek reruns, and the high-tech detective drama CSI; Blackbelt TV broadcasts martial arts around the clock; sci-fi is everywhere. Several years ago, the Cartoon Network spied the potential in the child-man market, too, and introduced Adult Swim, late-night programming with “adult” cartoons like Family Guy and Futurama, a cult favorite co-created by Matt Groening of The Simpsons fame. Adult Swim has cut into the male Letterman and Leno audience, luring gold-plated advertisers Saab, Apple, and Taco Bell; child-men, it should come as no surprise, eat lots of fast food.

One can also lay the success of cable giant Comedy Central at the child-man’s sneakered foot. In its early-nineties infancy, Comedy Central had old movie comedies, some stand-up acts, and few viewers. The next several years brought some buzz with shows like Politically Incorrect. But it was in 1997—the same year that Maxim arrived in America—that the network struck gold with a cartoon series starring a group of foul-mouthed eight-year-old boys. With its cutting subversion of all that’s sacred and polite, South Park was like a dog whistle that only SYMs could hear; the show became the highest-rated cable series in that age group.

In 1999, the network followed up with The Man Show, famous for its “Juggies” (half-naked women with exceptionally large, well, juggies), interviews with porn stars, drinking songs, and a jingle that advised, “Quit your job and light a fart / Yank your favorite private part.” It was “like Maxim for TV,” one network executive told Media Life. Comedy Central’s viewers, almost two-thirds of them male, have made both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report cultural touchstones and launched the careers of stars like Bill Maher, Jimmy Kimmel, Dave Chapelle, and, most notably, Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart—who has already hosted the Academy Awards and is set to do so again, a perfect symbol of the mainstreaming of the SYM sensibility.

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.

And the child-man’s home sweet media home is the Internet, where no meddling censors or nervous advertisers deflect his desires. Some sites, like MensNewsDaily.com, are edgy news providers. Others, like AskMen.com, which claims 5 million visitors a month, post articles like “How to Score a Green Chick” in the best spirit of Maxim-style self-parody. “How is an SUV-driving, to-go-cup-using, walking environmental catastrophe like yourself supposed to hook up with them?” the article asks. Answer: Go to environmental meetings, yoga, or progressive bookstores (“but watch out for lesbians”).

Other sites, like MenAreBetterThanWomen.com, TuckerMax.com, TheBestPageInTheUniverse.com, and DrunkasaurusRex.com, walk Maxim’s goofiness and good-natured woman-teasing over the line into nastiness. The men hanging out on these sites take pride in being “badasses” and view the other half bitterly. A misogynist is a “man who hates women as much as women hate each other,” writes one poster at MenAreBetterThanWomen. Another rails about “classic woman ‘trap’ questions— Does this make me look fat? Which one of my friends would you sleep with if you had to? Do you really enjoy strip clubs?” The Fifth Amendment was created because its architects’ wives “drove them ape-shit asking questions that they’d be better off simply refusing to answer.”

That sound you hear is women not laughing. Oh, some women get a kick out of child-men and their frat/fart jokes; about 20 percent of Maxim readers are female, for instance, and presumably not all are doing research for the dating scene. But for many of the fairer sex, the child-man is either an irritating mystery or a source of heartbreak. In Internet chat rooms, in advice columns, at female water-cooler confabs, and in the pages of chick lit, the words “immature” and “men” seem united in perpetuity. Women complain about the “Peter Pan syndrome”—the phrase has been around since the early 1980s but it is resurgent—the “Mr. Not Readys,” and the “Mr. Maybes.” Sex and the City chronicled the frustrations of four thirtysomething women with immature, loutish, and uncommitted men for six popular seasons.

Naturally, women wonder: How did this perverse creature come to be? The most prevalent theory comes from feminist-influenced academics and cultural critics, who view dude media as symptoms of backlash, a masculinity crisis. Men feel threatened by female empowerment, these thinkers argue, and in their anxiety, they cling to outdated roles. The hyper-masculinity of Maxim et al. doesn’t reflect any genuine male proclivities; rather, retrograde media “construct” it.

The fact that guys cheer on female heroines like Buffy the Vampire Slayer as much as they do Chuck Norris tells against this theory somewhat. But there’s an ounce of truth to it. The men of the new media are in backlash mode, largely because they believe that feminists have stood in their way as media gatekeepers—that is, agents, editors, producers, and the like—who don’t understand or accept “men acting like men.” They gleefully stick their thumbs in the eyes of politically correct tsk-tskers. In one South Park episode, the Sexual Harassment Panda, a mascot who teaches schoolkids the evils of sexual harassment, is fired after his little talks provoke a flood of inane lawsuits. In Maxim, readers can find articles like “How to Cure a Feminist,” one of whose recommendations is to “pretend you share her beliefs” by asking questions like, “Has Gloria Steinem’s marriage hurt the feminist agenda?”

Insofar as the new guy media reflect a backlash against feminism, they’re part of the much larger story of men’s long, uneasy relationship with bourgeois order. The SYM with a taste for Maxim or South Park may not like Gloria Steinem, but neither does he care for anyone who tells him to behave—teachers, nutritionists, prohibitionists, vegetarians, librarians, church ladies, counselors, and moralists of all stripes. In fact, men have always sought out an antisocial, even anarchic, edge in their popular culture. In a renowned essay, the critic Barbara Ehrenreich argued that the arrival of Playboy in 1953 represented the beginning of a male rebellion against the conformity of mid-century family life and of middle-class virtues like duty and self-discipline. “All woman wants is security,” she quotes an early Playboy article complaining. “And she is perfectly willing to crush man’s adventurous freedom-loving spirit to get it.” Even the name of the magazine, Ehrenreich observed, “defied the convention of hard-won maturity.”

Ehrenreich was right about the seditious impulse behind Playboy, but wrong about its novelty. Male resistance to bourgeois domesticity had been going on since the bourgeoisie went domestic. In A Man’s Place, historian John Tosh locates the rebellion’s roots in the early nineteenth century, when middle-class expectations for men began to shift away from the patriarchal aloofness of the bad old days. Under the newer bourgeois regime, the home was to be a haven in a heartless world, in which affection and intimacy were guiding virtues. But in Tosh’s telling, it didn’t take long before men vented frustrations with bourgeois domestication: they went looking for excitement and male camaraderie in empire building, in adventure novels by authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, and in going to “the club.”

By the early twentieth century, the emerging mass market in the U.S. offered new outlets for the virile urges that sat awkwardly in the bourgeois parlor; hence titles like Field and Stream and Man’s Adventure, as well as steamier fare like Escapade and Caper. When television sets came on the market in the late 1940s, it was the airing of heavyweight fights and football games that led Dad to make the big purchase; to this day, sports events—the battlefield made civilized—glue him to the Barcalounger when he should be folding the laundry.

But this history suggests an uncomfortable fact about the new SYM: he’s immature because he can be. We can argue endlessly about whether “masculinity” is natural or constructed—whether men are innately promiscuous, restless, and slobby, or socialized to be that way—but there’s no denying the lesson of today’s media marketplace: give young men a choice between serious drama on the one hand, and Victoria’s Secret models, battling cyborgs, exploding toilets, and the NFL on the other, and it’s the models, cyborgs, toilets, and football by a mile. For whatever reason, adolescence appears to be the young man’s default state, proving what anthropologists have discovered in cultures everywhere: it is marriage and children that turn boys into men. Now that the SYM can put off family into the hazily distant future, he can—and will—try to stay a child-man. Yesterday’s paterfamilias or Levittown dad may have sought to escape the duties of manhood through fantasies of adventures at sea, pinups, or sublimated war on the football field, but there was considerable social pressure for him to be a mensch. Not only is no one asking that today’s twenty- or thirtysomething become a responsible husband and father—that is, grow up—but a freewheeling marketplace gives him everything that he needs to settle down in pig’s heaven indefinitely.

And that heaven can get pretty piggish. Take Tucker Max, whose eponymous website is a great favorite among his peers. In a previous age, Max would have been what was known as a “catch.” Good-looking, ambitious, he graduated from the University of Chicago and Duke Law. But in a universe where child-men can thrive, he has found it more to his liking—and remarkably easy—to pursue a different career path: professional “asshole.” Max writes what he claims are “true stories about my nights out acting like an average twentysomething”—binge drinking (UrbanDictionary.com lists Tucker Max Drunk, or TMD, as a synonym for “falling down drunk”), fighting, leaving vomit and fecal detritus for others to clean up, and, above all, hooking up with “random” girls galore—sorority sisters, Vegas waitresses, Dallas lap dancers, and Junior Leaguers who’re into erotic asphyxiation.

Throughout his adventures, Max—like a toddler stuck somewhere around the oedipal stage—remains fixated on his penis and his “dumps.” He is utterly without conscience—“Female insecurity: it’s the gift that keeps on giving,” he writes about his efforts to undermine his prey’s self-esteem in order to seduce them more easily. Think of Max as the final spawn of an aging and chromosomally challenged Hugh Hefner, and his website and best-selling book, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, as evidence of a male culture in profound decline. Playboy’s aspirations toward refinement still hinted at the call of the ego and a culture with limits on male restiveness; Max, the child-man who answers to no one except his fellow “assholes,” is all id—and proud of it.

Now, you could argue that the motley crew of Maxim, Comedy Central, Halo 3, and even the noxious Tucker Max aren’t much to worry about, and that extended adolescence is what the word implies: a temporary stage. Most guys have lots of other things going on, and even those who spend too much time on TuckerMax.com will eventually settle down. Men know the difference between entertainment and real life. At any rate, like gravity, growing up happens; nature has rules.

That’s certainly a hope driving the sharpest of recent child-man entertainments, Judd Apatow’s hit movie Knocked Up. What sets Knocked Up apart from, say, Old School, is that it invites the audience to enjoy the SYM’s immaturity—his T-and-A obsessions, his slobby indolence—even while insisting on its feebleness. The potheaded 23-year-old Ben Stone accidentally impregnates Alison, a gorgeous stranger he was lucky enough to score at a bar. He is clueless about what to do when she decides to have the baby, not because he’s a “badass”—actually, he has a big heart—but because he dwells among social retards. His roommates spend their time squabbling about who farted on whose pillow and when to launch their porn website. His father is useless, too: “I’ve been divorced three times,” he tells Ben when his son asks for advice about his predicament. “Why are you asking me?” In the end, though, Ben understands that he needs to grow up. He gets a job and an apartment, and learns to love Alison and the baby. This is a comedy, after all.

It is also a fairy tale for guys. You wouldn’t know how to become an adult even if you wanted to? Maybe a beautiful princess will come along and show you. But the important question that Apatow’s comedy deals with only obliquely is what extended living as a child-man does to a guy—and to the women he collides with along the way.

For the problem with child-men is that they’re not very promising husbands and fathers. They suffer from a proverbial “fear of commitment,” another way of saying that they can’t stand to think of themselves as permanently attached to one woman. Sure, they have girlfriends; many are even willing to move in with them. But cohabiting can be just another Peter Pan delaying tactic. Women tend to see cohabiting as a potential path to marriage; men view it as another place to hang out or, as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead observes in Why There Are No Good Men Left, a way to “get the benefits of a wife without shouldering the reciprocal obligations of a husband.”

Even men who do marry don’t easily overcome child-manhood. Neal Pollack speaks for some of them in his 2007 memoir Alternadad. Pollack struggles with how to stay “hip”—smoking pot and going to rock concerts—once he becomes a father to Elijah, “the new roommate,” as he calls him. Pollack makes peace with fatherhood because he finds that he can introduce his toddler to the best alternative bands, and also because he has so many opportunities to exercise the child-man’s fascination with “poop.” He is affectingly mad for his little boy. Yet his efforts to turn his son into a hip little Neal Pollack—“My son and I were moshing! Awesome!”—reflect the self-involvement of the child-man who resists others’ claims on him.

Knocked Up evokes a more destructive self-involvement in a subplot involving Alison’s miserably married sister Debbie and her husband, Pete, the father of her two little girls. Pete, who frequently disappears to play fantasy baseball, get high in Las Vegas, or just go to the movies on his own, chronically wields irony to distance himself from his family. “Care more!” his wife yells at him. “You’re cool because you don’t give a shit.”

And that “coolness” points to what may be the deepest existential problem with the child-man—a tendency to avoid not just marriage but any deep attachments. This is British writer Nick Hornby’s central insight in his novel About a Boy. The book’s antihero, Will, is an SYM whose life is as empty of passion as of responsibility. He has no self apart from pop-culture effluvia, a fact that the author symbolizes by having the jobless 36-year-old live off the residuals of a popular Christmas song written by his late father. Hornby shows how the media-saturated limbo of contemporary guyhood makes it easy to fill your days without actually doing anything. “Sixty years ago, all the things Will relied on to get him through the day simply didn’t exist,” Hornby writes. “There was no daytime TV, there were no videos, there were no glossy magazines. . . . Now, though, it was easy [to do nothing]. There was almost too much to do.”

Will’s unemployment is part of a more general passionlessness. To pick up women, for instance, he pretends to have a son and joins a single-parent organization; the plight of the single mothers means nothing to him. For Will, women are simply fleshy devices that dispense sex, and sex is just another form of entertainment, a “fantastic carnal alternative to drink, drugs, and a great night out, but nothing much more than that.”

As the title of his 2005 novel Indecision suggests, Benjamin Kunkel also shows how apathy infects the new SYM world. His hero, 28-year-old Dwight Wilmerding, suffers from “abulia”—chronic indecisiveness—so severe that he finds himself paralyzed by the Thanksgiving choices of turkey, cranberry sauce, and dressing. His parents are divorced, his most recent girlfriend has faded away, and he has lost his job. Like Will, Dwight is a quintessential slacker, unable to commit and unwilling to feel. The only woman he has loved is his sister, who explains the attraction: “I’m the one girl you actually got to know in the right way. It was gradual, it was inevitable.” Like Hornby, Kunkel sees the easy availability of sex as a source of slacker apathy. In a world of serial relationships, SYMs “fail to sublimate their libidinal energies in the way that actually makes men attractive,” Kunkel told a dismayed female interviewer in Salon. With no one to challenge them to deeper connections, they swim across life’s surfaces.

The superficiality, indolence, and passionlessness evoked in Hornby’s and Kunkel’s novels haven’t triggered any kind of cultural transformation. Kunkel’s book briefly made a few regional bestseller lists, and Hornby sells well enough. But sales of “lad lit,” as some call books with SYM heroes, can’t hold a candle to those of its chick-lit counterpart. 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.

Kay S. Hymowitz is a contributing editor of City Journal and the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book is Marriage and Caste in America.

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