Child-Man in the Promised Land: Today’s single young men hang out in a hormonal limbo between adolescence and adulthood.

Kay S. Hymowitz – City Magazine

Copyright City Magazine
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.
Click to read more

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *