My father is very into gender roles; so much so that it was one of the first things he taught my younger brother. When Mark made the mistake of opening the door to a restaurant and sauntered in without waiting for our mother, Dad ensured this never happened again. To this day, Mark opens all my doors, repairs and washes my car, and unstops my sink. Nowadays, unless a boy is being raised in what I will call "the traditional manner," he probably thinks nothing of opening a door just for himself. What is more telling is that his mother probably thinks nothing of it either. In a post-third-wave feminism world, such formality and distinction is either obsequious or degrading.
At least that's what we're meant to think. I'm told there is a no more nerve-wracking moment during a first date than when a man has to decide whether he's going to open the door for a woman. But women are just as nervous as men. While he's agonizing about the door, she's wondering whether they're even on a date. It's this current state of relational confusion that Kay Hymowitz characterizes in her book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys.
Despite what the title may suggest, Hymowitz is neither a Friedan activist nor Schlafly crusader. Her thesis is that the technological, economic, and social shifts of the past one hundred years have effectively eliminated Western society's traditional "life-script," drastically altering the roles of men and women in society. Both sexes are reaching adulthood without any idea of the general trajectory their lives should take. They know they want fulfilling, meaningful lives and relationships, but they have no clear idea of how that's going to happen. Instead, they're fed nebulous dictums such as "Explore your options" and "Expand your horizons," and from them develop a vague sense that adulthood isn't a destination to be reached, but a journey to be experienced. According to them, a fulfilling life is equated with an interesting and creative career, and our knowledge-driven economy provides them with plenty of options’web designer, social media director, and market analyst are a smattering of the jobs available to college graduates. They may not pay much, but they beat the sterile, life-sucking corporate cubicle. As long as you feel like you're in a BlackBerry ad most of the time, you know you're on the right track.
It's the "fulfilling and meaningful relationships" bit that's a tad trickier. Getting an interesting and sexy job takes time and resources, and doesn't leave much time for budding romance. Not that this troubles our young dreamers. Women, having been groomed for financial success and social independence, aren't too worried about it. For them, it's career first, marriage and family second. Men, having come of age at the dawn of a new era in their sex's history, are even less concerned. According to Hymowitz, they don't need to; the traditional sphere that men have occupied in society (protector and provider) has been taken over by women. Women can buy their own homes and become pregnant on their own (sort of). This new order frees men to remain emotional adolescents for the rest of their lives, if they so choose. If they don't choose, that's even better’for them. While women are on a time-crunch to have children (and therefore marry, since most of them don't fancy single motherhood), men have almost all the time in the world biologically. The longer they wait, the better their chances of finding a wife. As a man matures, gains more confidence, and enjoys greater financial success, he finds that his popularity with women soars and his mating potential increases, whereas a woman's appeal dwindles with time and her chances for conceiving drop. Combine these opposing biological courses with the fact that neither gender knows what they're doing nor what they're supposed to be doing, and you have an intersexual catastrophe of Jersey Shore proportions.
Hymowitz is quick to point out the negative side effects of some of these new lifestyles. The "Dating Darwinists" (the single men who systematically rate and pursue women according to their ranking on a 1’10 scale) somehow manage to end up with the very women they were running away from. She candidly states that "Choice Mothers" (the single women who choose motherhood via artificial insemination) aren't doing half as much for the affirmation of autonomous femininity as they are for the propagation of male immaturity. She attempts to reassure her uncomfortably squirming single readers that there is a pinprick of light in this relational black hole by citing several sources that indicate that over 80 percent of college-educated people marry by the time they're forty. However, she spends considerably more time on the fact that this trend of delayed marriage means that men and women who spend their youth trying to outwit this emotional obstacle course are going to have a difficult time establishing a home and raising the next generation of young adults. While it is true that most single people don't want the BlackBerry life half as much as they want companionship and families, she notes that those who do get married often don't stay married; and she acknowledges that both sexes are licking so many wounds and bringing so much baggage into their relationships that it's practically impossible to predict what the outcome of our current state might look like. Without assigning blame to any one ideology or sex, she drives home the significance of our new social and sexual ideals and the gravity of our current situation.
So what should we do about it? Apart from her mildly worded advice to the Choice Mother, Hymowitz doesn't really say. After all, what can she say? As a society, we've done away with the idea that a person's life ought to be characterized by something or anything. We don't want social norms or biological impulses; we want the freedom to determine our own destinies and carve our own paths. The question Hymowitz poses is this: considering that this freedom hasn't really made us happier, is it really what we want?