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February 22 2011

Pre-Adult Boys (and Girls)

Hadley Heath

Over the long weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from Kay Hymowitz's new book called "Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has Turned Men into Boys."  Carrie Lukas has already blogged about the book on Inkwell and Dr. Helen has good thoughts on her blog too.

When I started reading the excerpt, I expected to be bored (and depressed) by it because I've already read a lot of commentary in this category.  But Hymowitz does have some refreshing insights to add to this discussion about pre-adulthood and the mass confusion about family formation in my generation.

I can speak about pre-adulthood from personal experience.  I don't consider myself a pre-adult per se (I prefer "adult," thank you), but I know that my generation is filled with them.  Here we are: college educated, possibly unemployed or taking the nebulous "year off," maybe pursuing a graduate degree because, hey, there's nothing better to do, or starting jobs and getting "cut off" by our parents.  It's an awkward time in life. 

But Hymowitz writes that pre-adulthood is more of a problem for young men:

What also makes pre-adulthood something new is its radical reversal of the sexual hierarchy. Among pre-adults, women are the first sex. They graduate from college in greater numbers (among Americans ages 25 to 34, 34% of women now have a bachelor's degree but just 27% of men), and they have higher GPAs. As most professors tell it, they also have more confidence and drive. These strengths carry women through their 20s, when they are more likely than men to be in grad school and making strides in the workplace. In a number of cities, they are even out-earning their brothers and boyfriends.

Newsflash: When there's a big problem among young men, there's a big problem among young women.  (That is, if anyone wants to go on a date.)  Sure, these statistics are just numbers that give us a general picture of the situation.  And I don't think this means "the end of men."  I think it just creates a middle-school dance situation between guys and gals - only this time the disparity is not because of the towering height of early blooming girls, this time the disparity is less visible but more troublesome.

But rather than talk about who is to blame for this crisis, or further quote the numbers on how much more awesome my girlfriends and I are than our male peers (I'm kidding)... I want to chime in on another topic Hymowitz discusses: the "career." 

I agree with Hymowitz when she assesses the pre-adult's over-preoccupation with the "career."  I think this is a way for my generation to ignore the broken system of male-female relationships and change the subject.  Throughout her book she focuses on the changing roles of women and men in the workplace and at home.  For pre-adults,

Another factor in the lengthening of the road to adulthood is our increasingly labyrinthine labor market. The past decades' economic expansion and the digital revolution have transformed the high-end labor market into a fierce competition for the most stimulating, creative and glamorous jobs. Fields that attract ambitious young men and women often require years of moving between school and internships, between internships and jobs, laterally and horizontally between jobs, and between cities in the U.S. and abroad. The knowledge economy gives the educated young an unprecedented opportunity to think about work in personal terms. They are looking not just for jobs but for "careers," work in which they can exercise their talents and express their deepest passions. They expect their careers to give shape to their identity. For today's pre-adults, "what you do" is almost synonymous with "who you are," and starting a family is seldom part of the picture.

...

Given the rigors of contemporary career-building, pre-adults who do marry and start families do so later than ever before in human history. Husbands, wives and children are a drag on the footloose life required for the early career track and identity search.

I believe that too many of my peers expect to find their identity in the work that they do.  Furthermore, they believe that this needs to happen before they marry and "settle down."  Some of us surely will find a great deal of satisfaction in our current jobs (and that's a great thing!).  But the pressure for pre-adults to sit in family-forming time-out until they completely figure out their identity is silly.  The shaping of one's identity is lifelong, and there is a lot of room for influences from factors other than work.  I hope I'm not expected to "find myself" before age 30 and then stay the same forever.  Part of being an adult (a real adult) is learning to navigate the changes in our lives and ourselves (sometimes even - gasp - within the context of relationships).  And that's true for both men and women.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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