Wednesday, March 02, 2011


Writer Kay Hymowitz says in this WSJ op-ed that over the last generation society has spawned a new social segment that she calls "pre-adulthood." This phase is sandwiched between the teen years and full adulthood.

Hymowitz notes that the now common teenager phase is actually a relatively recent phenomenon that came about as the Industrial Age ripened. As the economy shifted from agriculture to industry and prosperity crept forward, it became decreasingly necessary for teens to economically contribute to a family's needs.

Moreover, workers began to become increasingly specialized. This happens in all advancing economies and it is one of the key ingredients to the expansion of prosperity. However, it also means that workers increasingly need better qualifications to become full economic contributors.

Some have argued that secondary schools arose as baby-sitting services for unproductive adolescents so that their parents could be freed up to work. While that may not be wholly incorrect, the fact is that schools arose to fill the economic need for better qualified workers.

One of the problems with the advent of teenager-hood as its own element is that it leaves people in limbo for a number of years. They are no longer children but neither can they be full social-economic contributors. Almost all respond with some level of rebellious behavior, lashing out against societal norms. This ranges from relatively benign actions to ones that produce long-term negative consequences.

Our social-economic system continues to evolve, creating demand for ever more specialized workers. The system has also permitted more women to not only enter the workforce but to excel in the workforce as never before. These elements together have expanded the limbo period from the teen years to the young adult years, the period that Hymowitz calls "pre-adulthood."

The advancement of women has decreased the demand for men to achieve responsibility and independence. To put it bluntly, women have less of a need of a husband in order to be socially and economically stable than used to be the case. The combination of these factors means that the pre-adult stage is mostly a male thing.

While women are graduating college and embarking on promising careers, men that have been "wait-listed for adulthood" are acting like adult-size teenagers. Hymowitz writes, "Single men have never been civilization's most responsible actors; they continue to be more troubled and less successful than men who deliberately choose to become husbands and fathers. ... Relatively affluent, free of family responsibilities, and entertained by an array of media devoted to his every pleasure, the single young man can live in pig heaven—and often does."

Just as marketers quickly took advantage of burgeoning ranks of teens in the 20th Century, they are heavily targeting those 20-something males that have little sense of responsibility.

There are certainly men that get an education during their 20s. However, some have complained that we are producing masses of educated barbarians that lack the kind of responsibility and self restraint required to maintain a civil society.

With men coming late to the social and economic party, many are no doubt slated to spend fewer years in a productive career than their parents' generation before they begin to crave the leisure promised by retirement. Having spent much and saved little during their younger years (and given the anticipated instability of Social Security), many of these men may find full retirement elusive as they age.

Families can do much to encourage their young men to grow up to be men. Those young men that fail to man up may be on their way to obsolescence. That would not be a good thing. One of the major issues for societies throughout time has been how to deal with their men. Societies that find useful roles for their men to play thrive far better than those that don't. Given our current trajectory, we may find ourselves in a bad place in a couple of generations.

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