The Basement Boys
The making of modern immaturity.
By George F. Will | NEWSWEEK
Published Mar 8, 2010
From the magazine issue dated Mar 8, 2010
Current economic hardships have had what is called in constitutional law a "disparate impact": The crisis has not afflicted everyone equally. Although women are a majority of the workforce, perhaps as many as 80 percent of jobs lost were held by men. This injury to men is particularly unfortunate because it may exacerbate, and be exacerbated by, a culture of immaturity among the many young men who are reluctant to grow up.
Increasingly, they are defecting from the meritocracy. Women now receive almost 58 percent of bachelor's degrees. This is why many colleges admit men with qualifications inferior to those of women applicants—which is one reason men have higher dropout rates. The Pew Research Center reports that 28 percent of wives between ages 30 and 44 have more education than their husbands, whereas only 19 percent of husbands in the same age group have more education than their wives. Twenty-three percent of men with some college education earn less than their wives. In law, medical, and doctoral programs, women are majorities or, if trends continue, will be.
In 1956, the median age of men marrying was 22.5. But between 1980 and 2004, the percentage of men reaching age 40 without marrying increased from 6 to 16.5. A recent study found that 55 percent of men 18 to 24 are living in their parents' homes, as are 13 percent of men 25 to 34, compared to 8 percent of women.
Mike Stivic, a.k.a. Meathead, the liberal graduate student in All in the Family, reflected society's belief in the cultural superiority of youth, but he was a leading indicator of something else: He lived in his father-in-law Archie Bunker's home. What are today's "basement boys" doing down there? Perhaps watching Friends and Seinfeld reruns about a culture of extended youth utterly unlike the world of young adults in previous generations.
Gary Cross, a Penn State University historian, wonders, "Where have all the men gone?" His book, Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity, argues that "the culture of the boy-men today is less a life stage than a lifestyle." If you wonder what has become of manliness, he says, note the differences between Cary Grant and Hugh Grant, the former, dapper and debonair, the latter, a perpetually befuddled boy.
Permissive parenting, Cross says, made children less submissive, and the decline of deference coincided with the rise of consumer and media cultures celebrating the indefinite retention of the tastes and habits of childhood. The opening of careers to talented women has coincided with the attenuation of male role models in popular culture: In 1959, there were 27 Westerns on prime-time television glamorizing male responsibility.
Cross says the large-scale entry of women into the workforce made many men feel marginalized, especially when men were simultaneously bombarded by new parenting theories, which cast fathers as their children's pals, or worse: In 1945, Parents magazine said a father should "keep yourself huggable" but show a son the "respect" owed a "business associate."
All this led to "ambiguity and confusion about what fathers were to do in the postwar home and, even more, about what it meant to grow up male." Playboy magazine, a harbinger of perpetual adolescence, sold trinkets for would-be social dropouts: "Join the beat generation! Buy a beat generation tieclasp." Think about that.
Although Cross, an aging academic boomer, was a student leftist, he believes that 1960s radicalism became "a retreat into childish tantrums" symptomatic "of how permissive parents infantilized the boomer generation." And the boomers' children? Consider the television commercials for the restaurant chain called Dave & Buster's, which seems to be, ironically, a Chuck E. Cheese's for adults—a place for young adults, especially men, to drink beer and play electronic games and exemplify youth not as a stage of life but as a perpetual refuge from adulthood.
At the 2006 Super Bowl, the Rolling Stones sang "Satisfaction," a song older than the Super Bowl. At this year's game, another long-of-tooth act, the Who, continued the commerce of catering to baby boomers' limitless appetite for nostalgia. "My generation's obsession with youth and its memories," Cross writes, "stands out in the history of human vanity."
Last November, when Tiger Woods's misadventures became public, his agent said: "Let's please give the kid a break." The kid was then 33. He is now 34 but, no doubt, still a kid. The puerile anthem of a current Pepsi commercial is drearily prophetic: "Forever young."