There’s more to being an adult than biology

Kay Hymowitz’s assault on men who seem incapable of growing up is well aimed, but her recourse to human biology as the source of adulthood makes for miserable reading.

Patrick Hayes

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In a society that increasingly fails to have a sense of what it is to be an adult, author Kay Hymowitz makes a provocative case for men being more at sea than women.

According to Hymowitz, women are doing pretty well. They are gaining high-level qualifications, they are continuing to play a core role in family life and they are increasingly successful in the job market. It’s the men who are suffering. They appear infantilised, ‘lads’ to the end, watching Adam Sandler movies, obsessing about Star Wars and aspiring to little else than going on one great Charlie Sheen-inspired, drunken bender.

At the heart of Kay Hymowitz’s work Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, is the observation that both men and women are experiencing more freedom than ever before. As she puts it, ‘financially and sexually independent, both men and women have escaped dating rituals, rules and gender roles. They’re free to do whatever they want, and their opportunities for pursuing happiness on their own terms are like none before in human experience.’

We are, argues Hymowitz, now largely freed up from the traditional roles forced upon us by situation or necessity. Women are no longer expected to raise kids and be housewives from their early twenties. Equally, men no longer have to be the sole providers. However with this freedom, says Hymowitz, comes a profound sense of disorientation. Young men and women have lost a sense of what it is to be an adult. They have become locked into a state of ‘pre-adulthood’, where they ‘don’t know what is supposed to come next’.

This culture of adultescence, as described by Hymowitz, is something that many of us will recognise. Increasingly people enter their thirties and even forties without assuming traditionally adult responsibilities. As Frank Furedi has observed previously on spiked, a sense of despair now surrounds adult identity. This, Furedi says, ‘helps explain why contemporary culture finds it difficult to draw a line between adulthood and childhood. Childishness is idealised for the simple reason that we despair at the thought of living the alternative.’

But Hymowitz seems less interested in exploring this social and cultural phenomenon in itself than choosing to see it through the distorting prism of gender relations. For Hymowitz, men are hit the hardest by this newly found freedom. She sees the role of men historically as being ‘pretty simple’: ‘You’re born; you grow up; you learn to do the hunting, fishing, building, farming and the like expected of you; you get married; you have children; you get old (if you’re lucky) and you die.’

Men are now apparently stripped of this simple way of life due to the liberation of women and developments in the economy, in particular the shift to the ‘knowledge economy’ – a development that, Hymowitz believes, has benefited women because of their capacity to deal with greater uncertainty and organisational ability. Also, according to Hymowitz , men, no longer needing to play the role of providers in a family, have become inessential to family life, an optional ‘side order’, which makes them feel increasingly insecure.

Hymowitz broadly locates the reason for the success of women in this brave new world in the sphere of biology: women have a ticking biological clock that sobers them up from their hedonistic youth and makes them more focused. As she puts it, unlike men, ‘their biology grounds them in a life-script’. Lacking such a biological clock, men don’t know what time it is and continue to party hard. The fact that men are freer from their biological constraints than women is seen to be the source of their problem: men are too free from biological and social burdens and, therefore, are able to fritter away their lives trying to fulfil their base sexual and hedonistic desires.

As a result, Hymowitz argues, young men remain, ‘lazy, crude and immature’, whereas women are becoming increasingly ’put-together, smart and ambitious’. She offers a flurry of examples from popular culture to make her case, from the behaviour of Bart Simpson as opposed to that of his sister Lisa, to a comparison between Sex and the City’s Sarah Jessica Parker and man-child filmstar Will Ferrell.

Life isn’t all rosy for these smart, liberated women though. According to Hymowitz, they suffer as a result of the ‘grim Darwinian logic of aging and mating’. So by the time men start to lose the ‘metaphorical baby fat’ by the end their twenties, women of the same age are already well past their biological peak. As she puts it, ‘When a 23-year old woman is looking for male attention, she has overflowing shelves to choose to inspect… By 30, that same woman is looking at a much smaller larder of men. Meanwhile men in their thirties – her peers – now have an ever-growing selection of young women to choose from.’

Hymowitz doesn’t see this state of affairs going away any time soon. For a book written in such a provocative, polemical style it’s a surprise to see it end with a whimper, not a call to arms. She argues that given men and women still say they want to have satisfying family lives, ‘young women will have to get a better understanding of the limitations imposed by their bodies’. In other words, women have to accept that they can’t delay childbirth until their thirties and forties; they have to settle down and have kids at a far younger age.

How lame is that as a conclusion? It’s striking that on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Simone de Beauvoir, one of the founders of modern feminism and a pioneer of existentialism, even the bolshie Hymowitz is offering this kind of advice. She would do well to return to The Second Sex where Beauvoir makes a rallying call for women to transcend the objectification of themselves as ‘ovaries’ or ‘wombs’. And in this effort to ‘make their escape from the sphere hitherto assigned them, they aspire to full membership in the human race’.

Beauvoir, surely, would be deeply disappointed to hear Hymowitz tell women that if it’s happy families they aspire to, then they have to recognise their biological constraints, listen to their ‘biological clocks’ and become reconciled to the fact that their ‘ovaries’ play a greater role in their identity than their free, liberated selves would like to admit.

However, to be fair, Hymowitz is only prescriptive to the extent that she tells young men and women how to get what they say they want. She holds off sounding like a moralising grandmother and doesn’t lay down a manifesto for young men and women to shed their adolescence. While evidently disappointed with the lads in particular, she recognises young people need to make their own way in the world.

But is Hymowitz right that this is what young people want? If so, it speaks of a culture of low expectations where, when we finally attain greater freedom from material, economic, social and biological constraints, we still try to seek out biological and genetic determinants to give ourselves a sense of identity.

Rather than nostalgically trying to recreate a simpler golden age where we knew our place, and had determined roles and responsibilities thrust upon us, we should instead all start to ‘man up’, and take advantage of our freedoms. Men and women would do better orienting themselves to the future and debating what kind of adult society we want to create for ourselves.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.

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