The Basement Boys

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, March 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Basement Boys


Will, George F., Newsweek


Byline: George F. Will

The making of modern immaturity.

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.

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