What’s the Big Idea?
Today, young adults are taking a decade longer to complete the transition to adulthood than did their parents and grandparents. A phase that once consisted of a few awkward years has evolved into a whole new developmental stage of its own: adultolescence.
This cultural phenomenon could be attributed to increasing economic volatility. The explosion of personal wealth experienced by many of this generations’ parents in the eighties and nineties is now the only financial safety net their under/unemployed child can cling to for support during the Great Recession.
Lack of security has doubtlessly induced many young men and women to postpone their adult responsibilities for their late-20’s and even early-30’s, prompting the debate: Is thirty really the new twenty?
The social and economic ramifications of the new adultolescence have been well documented. But how did we get here? How do eager-minded young kids transform into the aimless and directionless young adults we see today?
American sociologist and gender specialist Michael Kimmel examines this question as it relates to men in particular in Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. “Guyland” encompasses a demographic of over 22 million young men (ages 16 to 26) who, in another era, “would undoubtedly be poised to take their place in the adult world, taking the first steps toward becoming the nation’s future professionals, entrepreneurs and business leaders.” Not today.
Now it’s more likely the case that these young men, with grandiose visions for their future and no real understanding of the level of commitment and diligence they entail, enter the adult world paralyzed with anxiety and uncertainty.
In Guyland, Kimmel tells us, young men “shirk off the responsibility of adulthood and remain fixated on the trappings of boyhood” — video games, sports, excessive drinking, depersonalized relationships, and pornography. Meanwhile they struggle heroically to prove their masculinity to peers. In doing so, boys conform to the Guyland code of conduct, quickly identifying with its strict rules of engagement. The “Guy Code” tells young men how to act and young women how to acquiesce.
Starting in middle school, boys increasingly define themselves based on the media’s portrayal of what it means to be a guy. They are sold the idea that a certain set of behaviors is the distilled essence of manhood. These are quickly adopted and then ruthlessly policed by other young males. Herein lies the reason for phrases like “Bros before hoes,” “Take it like a man,” and “Nice guys finish last” — implying that real men should refrain from expressing virtuous human emotions like sincerity, gentleness, and understanding.
This self-destructive behavior persists well through high school and into college, where, trying to prove their masculinity with no real understanding of what manhood is, guys sometimes engage in irresponsible behaviors and activities.
Young women fall victim to this dehumanizing vision of masculinity as well. Throughout their engagement with young men, they too are pressured to adopt ideals that stifle their emotional and psychological progress toward becoming adults. Socially, they are supposed to cautiously tiptoe around, not doing anything too startling—acting needy, getting attached, falling in love—lest they disturb the hyper euphoric environment of Guyland.
What’s the Significance?
Adolescence is an important life stage, which allows young men and women to engage in an identity quest on the way toward becoming a responsible adult, while remaining shielded from the demands of the real world. The problem is that now this distinction has been muddled by the media and by peers.
In previous generations, established social institutions such as family, education, and religion guided young men and women toward a path of emotional authenticity, moral integrity, and physical efficacy. Guyland simply doesn’t allow for such virtues — or take them seriously.
It’s important to note that not everyone in Guyland is morally misguided. Many of its inhabitants are actually kind-hearted and well-intentioned. But Guyland is a social space that no one can evade. Many guys end up cutting their own deal with it as they try to “navigate the passage from adolescence to adulthood without succumbing to the most soul-numbing, spirit-crushing elements that surround him every day.”
In order to counteract Guyland, we must reestablish our old norms of masculinity. We must collectively accept that being a real man means doing the right thing, holding true to your values, expressing empathy for those less fortunate, and standing up to immorality and injustice whenever you see it. In short, Kimmel says, it means being courageous.
Guyland feeds off the cowardice of young adults too fearful to speak out against its stupid and dangerous code of ethics. Therefore, if we wish to see any reversal in the adultolescent phenomenon now plaguing our society, we must change our culture of silence to one of outspokenness to act ethically and responsibly, no matter what.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com/olly