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'Pre-Adulthood' Separates The Men From The Boys

Once upon a time in America, boys "became men" when they went to war or started a family. Those milestones still hold true for some, but Kay Hymowitz, author of Manning Up: How The Rise Of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, says too many young men today are stuck in a stage of extended adolescence. In the new "pre-adulthood," she argues, young men are choosing video games or reruns on the Cartoon Network over adult responsibilities — namely, marriage.

"There simply never has been this ... large a percentage of single young people with so few family responsibilities and lots of entertainment out there," Hymowitz tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "The idea that men were going to eventually be husbands and fathers really provided a kind of structure ... an understanding of their role within the society."

But with the onset of "pre-adulthood," which Hymowitz dates roughly to the 1990s, "we don't really know what it means to 'man up' anymore. We're in a society that has a lot of confusion about what men are good for."

Men are often criticized for being confident or aggressive, Hymowitz says, but are also chided for being incompetent and foolish. They are told they are important as fathers, but "we also sing the praises of strong single mothers."

The resulting message to young men, says Hymowitz, "is that they're sort of optional to family life. And I think when you tell a whole generation of men [that] we can take them or leave them, you're going to get a rebellion on their part."

Sociologist Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, has also documented a shift in the roles and expectations of young men in America. In the 1950s, Kimmel tells Kelly, most people completed the transition to adulthood — finishing school, finding their first job, marrying and having children — "by age 21 or so. ... My mom finished all of those within three months ... as did all of her friends."

But times have changed dramatically, says Kimmel, a professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and he sees simple demographics as the primary driver behind the reluctance of young people to marry before their late 20s.

"My students today ... they're going to live, if demographers are right, into their mid-90s," says Kimmel. "So they look at me and they say, 'Now wait, get married at age 20? I'm not sure I want to be married to the same person for 76 years.' And they have a point."

Young, single adulthood is a "stage of development," says Kimmel. "It's not going away."

Both Kimmel and Hymowitz agree the changing American economy has played a tremendous role in shifting young men's attitudes toward marriage.

"It's much harder to find your way into your first good job," says Hymowitz, and takes longer still to move to the next professional level. "In this new economy young people will take much, much longer to grow up."

But whatever the causes, Hymowitz argues, these shifts ultimately favor men and disadvantage women, who face unique, biological pressures to enter adulthood.

"Although we're living a lot longer, we haven't conquered biology completely," she says. Many women in their early 30s, she argues, find themselves seeking a mate among peers who don't yet have the same priorities.

There is a gap, Hymowitz says, "between biology and pre-adulthood that we still haven't figured out how to negotiate."

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