Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, recently released the results of his groundbreaking study in a book entitled Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. Kimmel interviewed nearly 400 young men between 16 and 26 years of age, and over the course of 352 pages, he reveals a disturbing trend among the future of American manhood. Guyland seeks to answer the contemporary questions, “Why do so many guys seem stuck between adolescence and adulthood? Why do so many of them fail to launch? Just what is going on with America’s young men?”
Kimmel coined the term “Guyland” to describe “the world in which young men live.” Guyland, according to Kimmel “is both a stage of life, [an] … undefined time span between adolescence and adulthood that can often stretch for a decade or more, and a place … where guys gather to be guys with each other, unhassled by the demands of parents, girlfriends, jobs, kids, and the other nuisances of adult life. In this topsy-turvy, Peter-Pan mindset, young men shirk the responsibilities of adulthood and remain fixated on the trappings of boyhood…” (Kimmel, Guyland [New York, NY: Harper Row, 2008], 6).
Kimmel goes on, “In college, they party hard but are soft on studying. They slip through the academic cracks … getting by with little effort and less commitment. After graduation, they drift aimlessly from one dead-end job to another, spend more time online playing video games and gambling than they do on dates …, ‘hook up’ occasionally with a ‘friend with benefits,’ go out with their buddies, drink too much, and save too little. 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 have grandiose visions for their futures and not a clue how to get from here to there.”
In other words, many young men are not growing up; they’re not leaving the narcissism of childhood for the responsibilities (as well as opportunities) of manhood. They’re unproductive and short of ambition; they’re hedonistic, shallow and vain, lacking any coherent sense of direction, purpose or meaning. And this is not, according to Kimmel, the exception. He writes, “Guyland … has become a stage of life, a ‘demographic,’ that is now pretty much the norm.” (I would add the church is not countering this condition when it employs the same childish methods of amusement and entertainment to “disciple” our youth.)
Kimmel is not alone in his assessment. Scholars at the National Research Council in 2002 “estimated that at least one of every four adolescents in the U.S. (male and female) is at serious risk of not achieving productive adulthood” (Jacquelynne Eccles and Jennifer Appleton Gootman, National Research Council and Institute of Medicine [eds.], Community Programs to promote Youth Development [Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2002]).
Neither is this a uniquely American problem but a growing trend among many Western nations. Both Britain and Australia are confronted with “Laddism”: Lads are simply Guys with British accents, consuming the same media, engaging in the same sorts of behaviors, and lubricating their activities with the same alcohol. In Italy, they’re called mammonis, or mama’s boys. In Italy “a whopping 82 percent of men aged 18–30 are still living at home with their parents” (Mark Penn, Microtrends, [New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, 2007], 324). So severe is the economic impact that the Italian government is offering incentives for these mama’s boys to move out and become productive! In France, they’re called “Tanguys” after the French film with the same title, which depicts their lifestyle. Not coincidently, these countries have among the lowest birth rates—no marriage = fewer families, which means less children.
So what is essential to becoming an adult? Psychiatrically trained anthropologist David Gutmann summarizes the answer well when he writes, “We can say that adulthood has been achieved when narcissism is transmuted” (David Gutmann, “Adulthood and Its Discontents,” Working paper 67 [New York: Institute of American values, 1998], 4). So what is it that most hinders the transmutation of narcissism among adult males? While there are a number of factors that combine to encourage childishness in young men, I would offer that one of the most compelling is the delay or absence of marriage.
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 men entering marriage is declining. Census Bureau data show that the median age of marriage among men rose from 26.8 in 2000 to 27.5 in 2006—considered a dramatic demographic shift in only six years. One writer observed, “Not so long ago, the average mid-twenty something had achieved most of adulthood’s milestones … These days, he lingers … in a new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence…” (Kay Hymowitz, “Child-Man in the Promised Land,” City Journal, Winter 2008, vol. 18, no. 1).
So what? According to David Meyers, professor of psychology at Hope College, “Marriage domesticates men” (David G. Meyers, The American Paradox, [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000], 117). More specifically, “once men are married, they are much less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as drinking heavily, drivingly dangerously, or using drugs. They are also more likely to work regularly, help others more, volunteer more, and attend religious services more frequently” (Steven L. Nock, “Marriage as a Public Issue,” The Future of Children, Vol 15 No 2, Fall 2005, available at: www.futureofchildren.org).
Sociologist Steven Nock adds, “Others have made similar arguments about how marriage ‘domesticates’ men by fostering a sense of responsibility for their families, orienting them toward the future and making them sensitive to the long-term consequences of their actions…” Marriage is an essential element in the maturation of men and their future contributions to society.
What changed? According to a study by Rutgers University, the top reason given by men for their unwillingness to commit to marriage is “they can get sex without marriage more easily than in times past” (Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, “The State of Our Unions, The Social Health of Marriage in America, 2002,” The National Marriage Project (Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey). Wow! Apparently sexual immorality does adversely impact marriage; in this case, it simply nullifies marriage.
What will the future hold where a majority of men refuse to take their place in society? What kind of future can we expect where men are disinclined to commit to the building of families much less the world in which they live? To young women: if you want men to grow up and become responsible, you must stop giving to men what they should only receive after they have committed their lives to you in marriage. Lastly, if the church would begin to live this way, it would strengthen our culture’s commitment to marriage more so than any legislation ever could.