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Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity

Gary Cross

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Paper, 328 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-14431-5
$26.00 / £18.00

September, 2008
Cloth, 328 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-14430-8
$75.00 / £52.00

View this excerpt in pdf format | Copyright information

Excerpt from the Introduction

"Where Have All the Men Gone?

Everywhere I turn today I see men who refuse to grow up—husbands of thirty-five who enjoy playing the same video games that obsess twelve-year olds; boyfriends who will not commit to marriage or family; and fathers who fight with umpires or coaches at their son’s little league games. We all know men in their thirties or forties who would rather tinker with their cars than interact with their families, fathers who want to share in their children’s fads, and even bosses and political leaders who act like impulsive teenagers. Many are frustrated and confused about what maturity is and whether they can or want to achieve it. I call them boy-men. I’ve noticed how men deep in their twenties or even thirties, when their parents and grandparents had themselves been parents and homeowners, have not yet settled down. Some haven’t even left home. The singles culture celebrated in situation comedies like Friends is a world apart from the experience of young adults in previous generations. A common query (really a complaint) today, especially from women, is, where have all the men gone? What they seem to imply is that perfectly normal men who in previous generations would have been expected to be grown-ups continue to act, look, and think like teenagers.

But, of course, the problem goes much deeper—from the failure of millions of husbands and fathers to commit to the financial and personal duties of marriage and family to a culture that seems increas­ingly ignorant of the past and unwilling to assume fiscal or environ­mental responsibilities for the future. Boy-men are the cause of much of the cynicism in the culture and the coarsening of conversation and social rituals. Although there are many manifestations of this phenomenon in social relations, economic life, and even politics, it is most often expressed in the culture of men, in the films and TV they watch and the activities of their leisure hours.

The issue of modern immaturity goes beyond the jeremiads of the left or the right. It goes to our embrace of a commercial culture that feeds on stunted human growth and to our society, which is fixed narrowly on living for today. Such behavior is undeniably part of a larger cultural trend. Boy-men across the country have their own sto­ries, and many factors produce this resistance to "growing up," such as economic constraints and anxieties about the mating mistakes of parents. But any way you look at it, the boy-man has become a central character in our culture and, even if men do find ways of meeting their economic and even social obligations, the culture of immaturity has become the norm rather than the exception.

As a sixty-year old father of two sons (and a daughter), I find my­self thinking a very uncool yet all so predictable thought: Whatever is this generation coming to? Inevitably the subject of boy-men comes up in conversations with other fathers in the same situation. One, whose twenty-six-year old son recently returned home to finish college, calls them "basement boys." These young men find not only free lodging, meals, and security at home but also the freedom to come and go at will and, in the privacy of their converted subterranean lairs where no one will tell them to make their beds, to play endlessly on their Playstation consoles. As a history professor from a typical state university, I have seen the same thing in thirty-five-year-old professionals who fill their great rooms with the latest and most expensive video game hardware and who would have a pool table in the dining room if their wives would let them. I see male college students who play, alone or with pals, the latest version of Grand Theft Auto on Friday night rather than going out on dates.

"Honestly, I associate maturity with not having any fun. People use maturity like you’re not going out and partying on a Saturday night," explains Steve from New Jersey, who, at twenty-nine, still lives with his mother. "I’m gonna be thirty years old. When I’m thirty-one or thirty-two, I’ll have children. And in the meantime so, maybe, I got to have a little bit of fun in my twenties." Steve, who has an MBA, still loves to play video games. His favorite in 2006: TrueCrime New York City, "I could play up to six hours a day." He admits to enjoying the cyber-play of "beating up hookers and shooting cops in the head."

It would be easy to dismiss the basement boys as slackers, a characterization given these Generation X males when the term was first invented in the late 1980s. But I think that it is more complex than that. Obviously, they are settling down later. Young men, once considered ineffectual or of "doubtful" sexuality if they were unmarried at twenty-five, now go deep into their twenties and thirties single and remain unattached longer between marriages. Once the key mark­er of maturity, marriage has declined sharply in the United States, dropping from 70 percent of households in 1970 to just 53 percent in 2000. There are many reasons for adults being unmarried (from widowhood, poverty, and women’s reduced dependency on men, to a commitment to the playboy life). Yet of the growing percentage of single-person householders, a quarter in 000 were under thirty-five. While in 1980 only 6 percent of men reached their early forties without marrying (compared to 5 percent of women), by 2004, that percentage had increased to 16.5 for men (and 12.5 for women). Living outside marriage, either alone or in cohabitation, has increased enormously, from 38 million American adults in 1970 to 82 million in 2000. Cohabiting couples now number 5.5 million (up from 3.1 million in 1990), or 9 percent of all couples living together. Perhaps the most telling statistics are these: in a recent study, 55 percent of American men aged eighteen to twenty-four were found to be living at home with their parents, and 13 percent between twenty-five and thirty-four years of age still live at home, compared to only 8 percent of women. Today, men spend less of their lives in the self-denying set­tings of family and marriage. And this is hardly unique to Americans. Up to half of Italian men between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five still live with their parents.

As singles, ensconced within male or youth peer cultures, men today have plenty of time and opportunity to live the life of the boy-man. No longer marrying at twenty-two or twenty-three as did many of their boomer fathers, but often not until their thirties (twenty-seven on average), they have a long time to nurture the boy-man’s life and to develop habits of thought and practice that few "good women" can break even when it becomes time to "settle down." Sitcoms like Seinfeld or Friends may not accurately reflect the reality of the single’s life (and certain Sex and the City does not), but they do mirror the dreams of many singles, especially men.

In some ways this rejection of maturity is quite irrational, for immaturity is often anything but life-enhancing. If being unmarried is a measure of "adultescence," single American men are seven times more likely to go to prison than married men, four times more likely to be victims of violent crime, and twice as likely to be in an accident than the married. Bachelors are much less likely to hold a full time job (62 vs. 75 percent). It is also true that single American men tend to be less well off than married ones (only 21 percent earning more than $50,000, compared with 49 percent of their married counterparts). Bachelors’ lower income may be one of the reasons why they are bach­elors, but the single life may leave men without the emotional stability and ambition to earn more. And, despite legend, single American men seem to have less sex: only 26 percent claim to have it twice a week compared to 43 percent of married men. Yet despite all this, more and more men are avoiding the benefits of the "responsible life."

How do we understand the decision of men to delay or avoid marriage? A biological explanation is certainly tempting. As scientists tell us, the longing of young adult men for competitive gang life is shared with other primates as they wait for the opportunity to mate. This may explain the violence sometimes associated with single men in same-sex groups. By nature, it seems that men want to both spread their seed and protect their offspring, and this makes them uncertain and confused providers. Moreover, the fact that women today are often delaying marriage and child rearing to establish careers makes the choice of seed spreading outside the "pair bond" more common. In sum, men remain longer in the gang, that is, the irresponsible life. They are allowed, almost obliged, to cling to their teenage mindsets. Some cynics (or evolutionary anthropologists) might just say that men have always been boys—oversexed, irresponsible, self-indulgent, and prone to violent competitiveness. This ignores, however, centuries of culture, especially the civilizing efforts of our Victorian predecessors that created models of maturity in men. And, while these efforts were not always successful and often were tainted with hypocrisy, they did produce many men who were not boys. Something has changed.

If you ask a single man of thirty or older why he is still unattached, he will probably say that he simply cannot do as his father or grandfather did: provide for a wife and family at his age. "A lot of men my age feel pretty off stride because economically many of us are not in a position to be a sole provider," said Martin, a forty-six-year-old journalist, who has never been married and has no children. This abiding sense of failure is sometimes exacerbated by persistent resentment of the rise of women’s economic and social equality. "I got slapped in 1980," continues Martin, "when I was in college because I opened a door for a woman. . . . Women within 5 year range of my age either way will carry on that they want men to be sensitive and go to baby showers and all that crap, but they also feel kind of short changed when the guy kind of doesn’t take total control. The mutual expectations are very distorted."

Still, when I hear these complaints, I cannot help but think, are times that bad for men starting out? Weren’t economic conditions worse in the 1970s when I was their age? And, the women’s movement has been as good for many men as it has for women, economically and socially. I wonder if something else was at work. Maybe for many, not settling down was a choice, and that decision may reflect a profound cultural change.

Today, in some circles there is a veritable rejection of maturity in all of its meanings. Living for today, disdainful of pretense and formality, ever open to new thrills and experiences, but also mocking convention in celebrations of amoral violent fantasy, crude vulgarity, and unrestrained appetite, the boy-man makes a fetish of the "cool." He turns maturity into a joke, a pitiful loss to be avoided at almost all costs. Men spend billions to retain the bodies and hair of their youth, going well beyond the rationale of "good health," ordinary vanity, or even the practical requirements of being competitive in the sex mar­ket. Narcissism, traditionally seen as a feminine trait, is now associ­ated with perpetuating male youth.

The culture of the boy-men today is less a life stage than a lifestyle, less a transition from childhood to adulthood than a choice to live like a teen "forever." What sort of youth may they be trying to perpetuate? Certainly not the goody-two-shoes lad anxious to please or the youth hell-bent on making his mark on the world. Rather, basement boys long to be the fun-loving chap, "naughty" but nice enough to be indulged by women, and free, at least in fantasy or leisure, from the responsibilities of career and family. And they obsess about adventure. Of course, this quest for excitement has been true of youth from time immemorial. But recently the male quest for adventure has tended to lose its "civilized trappings"—with goals of service and sacrifice to a greater good—and become instead the pursuit of the pleasure of the adrenaline flow. Even more obviously, adventure no longer is about initiation into manhood. It is play and it never ends. Modern male adventure embraces the purity of excitement in ac­tion-figure movies, video games, and fantasy weekends of paint-ball warfare. This unalloyed pursuit of sensual intensity has transformed old mostly male pleasures. Who hasn’t noticed the blinking lights, ubiquitous video screens, and fireworks that ring the modern baseball stadium, making them look more like game arcades than the ball­parks of the past?

These themes dominate popular commercial culture today, occupying hours of nighttime television, worming their way into the scripts of movies and the lyrics of popular songs, and becoming the hooks of more and more sales pitches. No generation has been more shaped by that culture than young men today. Trapped on a seemingly endless treadmill, the boy-man finds quick satisfaction in a string of relationships, fads, and other thrills, easily exploited by advertisers and merchandisers. Anyone who has seen a beer commercial on Monday Night Football or recalls the antics of sitcom character Al Bundy (the shoe salesman whose lifetime highlight was making four touchdowns in one high school football game) knows the meaning of the phrase "men will be boys!" Some of us may snicker at an eighty-year-old Hugh Hefner surrounded by twenty-year-old blonds at his Playboy Mansion, but many men secretly (and openly) admire his "achievement." Probably more people are appalled by shock jock Howard Stern. His popularity rose to the point that Sirius Satellite Radio paid him about $200 million in stock to move to their stations from regular radio in 2006. He decided to make the change after repeated fines from the government’s watchdog agency, the FCC, for his lewd comments on his daily radio and TV shows. So Stern is now free to organize such programs off their radar as "The Crack Whore View," where real-life prostitutes discuss their lifestyles. Earlier, Stern’s TV show consisted mostly of his leering at and taunting women to reveal blurred breasts and buttocks to him and his cronies in the indulgent company of female sidekick Robin Quivers, who somehow made their boorish behavior OK. Though in his forties, Sterns seems like the high school student who loudly jokes about girls’ bra sizes as they pass in the halls. Stern himself went further, admitting that "I am perpetually a nine­year-old child" and "that is probably why I am still successful."

But the causes and consequences of men trying and often succeeding in perpetuating adolescent boyhood go way beyond the ab­surdities of Hefner or Stern. Boy-men are the tastemakers who cause profit-seeking Hollywood executives to stuff the multiplexes with endlessly repetitious action films and amazingly dumb comedies full of potty humor.

Just recall the endlessly sophomoric antics of the frenetic, wildly self-indulgent, but extremely popular comics whose excesses on the screen reflected their real lives. Remember John Belushi and Chris Farley? Both were part of an old tradition of the fat man jester, perpetuated in film (and TV) figures like Fatty Arbuckle, Oliver Hardy, and Jackie Gleason, who give us permission to laugh at their physical awkwardness and indulgences. But Belushi and Farley went further than their processors. In films like Animal House and The Blues Brothers, Belushi exuded a boyish rebellion. He was, as his friend Dan Aykroyd sadly said in 1982 at the time of Belushi’s death from a drug overdose, "a good man, but a bad boy," someone who needed "an additional illicit thrill to make it all worthwhile." Farley in his string of B-movies appealed to teen and college males with his total lack of restraint. He played the childlike loser in the body of a self-indulgent man. Like his idol, John Belushi, and to no one’s surprise, he, too, died at the age of thirty-three in 1997, in Farley’s case of a heart attack caused by excesses in food, drink, and drugs. It seems that he was un­able in reality, as in his movie roles, to live a balanced, adult life.

These tragedies make brief morality tales in the news and may seem far from the lives of regular people. The fact, however, that such movies and similar TV shows draw millions of adults with endless comedic celebrations of the taste of fourteen-year-old boys suggests that there is more than fantasy and fun at work here. We find boy-men appealing.

A few years ago, such immature characters served mostly as comic relief, checked by the seriousness of a sidekick. Boy-man Jimmy Kimmel played opposite the brainy and much older Ben Stein in a quiz show, Win Ben Stein’s Money (1997). Adam Carolla was the with-it jokester, making the serious advice of addiction physician Dr. Drew Pinski palatable on Loveline (1997), an MTV call-in show about sex for youth. By 1999, that pairing of maturity and immaturity was no longer necessary. Kimmel and Carolla teamed up to host the Comedy Channel’s Man Show, built on the right of all boy-men, no matter their age, size (the show featured a midget), race, or class, to leer at women jumping on trampolines. The Man Show made into reality the laughable make-believe NO MAM club of sitcom loser Al Bundy in Married with Children, which ran on the Fox TV network from 1987 to 1997. At that club, members endlessly whined about their wives in Al’s garage and got endless joy out of gawking at the "babes" working at the "Nudie Bar."

All of this, you might say, is just fantasy, fun, and, for a very few like Hefner, a lucrative game that has little to do with the way American men really live today. Some of my examples may seem extreme, such as Chris Farley, and it is possible that those who enjoy Howard Stern simply can’t get dates. But these media characters reflect everyday life in the early twenty-first century. And they give men permission to linger in the world of teenagers.

How do we explain the media’s celebration of the puerile and its apparent embrace by many adult men? Part of the answer may lie in the fact that the number of teenagers has surged since 1990 (expected to rise from 24.6 to 30 million by 2010). Merchandisers always target such growth groups, especially if they spend as young single men have long done. New technology may also play a role. While as Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times noted (in 1997), the Internet "was once touted as a resource for scholars [it] is rapidly becoming a playground for sophomoric nerds, a place to exchange dirty pictures, sick jokes and narcissistic pleas for attention"—and this was written before the Internet really took off. Male teens and youths dominate this and other new technologies in this "information age," coloring the whole culture.

Similarly, the behavior and dress of contemporary black sports celebrities such as Dennis Rodman and the lyrics of rap and hip-hop music show a new rebellion against paternal authority and a quest for preserving the intensities of youth. Rodman’s notorious "look" on the basketball court, with his tattoos and dyed hair, as well as his display of flamboyant clothing and "bling" jewelry off the court, is an almost cartoonish rejection of the old expectation of the respectable and re­spectful black athletic. Rodman is making very clear that he is no Joe Lewis, the famous boxer of the 1930s who "knew his place" and tried not to antagonize his white fans or his elders. Even while African American hip-hop entrepreneurs were in person hardly boy-men, often their songs appealed to a "live fast, die young" mentality. Songs like Sean Combs’s 1997 hit "It’s All About the Benjamins" (i.e., hun­dred-dollar bills) and "Bad Boy for Life" celebrate a get-yours-while­you-can philosophy. In ways, this is a black version of James Dean, as hip-hop artists reject the father in their critique of the civil rights movement and its leaders as irrelevant today. It is as if there were no past and no certain future, just the here and now. The boy-man may be especially evident in the culture of middle-class white men, but it extends across race and class.

As a baby boomer (in fact, a member of its "senior class"), I have to admit that my first impulse was to think what "elders" from time immemorial have thought: "The young today have lost their bearings, succumbed to the easy life, and lack sufficient appreciation of the ac­complishments of those who came before." Well, maybe the lament would be a bit more sophisticated than that. After all, I am a historian by trade and know better. But I have to admit that I have joined those dinner party conversations of aging boomers who complain that young men have too much "screen time" with all of today’s electronic gadgets. We go on to proclaim self-righteously that the young today lack the ex­perience of a challenging and ennobling historical crisis (like Vietnam and the civil rights movement, not to mention World War II) to steel them for goals beyond the cheap thrill and go-with-the-flow culture that surround them. Maybe someone at the dinner party would add in the spirit of generosity that we haven’t always provided models of maturity. Then there would be laughter and a change of subject.

Not so fast! Let’s consider two other members of that senior class of boomers, our last two presidents.

"I am struck by the immaturity of this administration, whatever the ages of the officials involved," writes Bob Herbert in the New York Times (2004), in reference to President George W. Bush:

"It’s as if the children have taken over and sent the adults packing. The counsel of wiser heads, like George H. W. Bush, or Brent Scowcroft, or Colin Powell, is not needed and not wanted. Some of the world’s most important decisions—often decisions of life and death—have been left to those who are less competent and less experienced, to men and women who are deficient in such qualities as risk perception and comprehension of future conse­quences, who are reckless and dangerously susceptible to magical thinking and the ideological pressure of their peers."

Of course, this could be written off as the rant of a Democrat. But it is interesting that the author notes the indifference of Bush the younger to the views of the experience of Bush the elder. Is this ideological or generational? Probably both, but Herbert believed the Bush II ad­ministration deliberately rejected "wisdom" because it was the voice of elders. A perhaps telling remark suggesting the depth of Bush the Younger’s boyish rebellion was captured by journalist Bob Woodward. When he asked George W. Bush if he had consulted his father before invading Iraq, the son replied, "He is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to."

A different sort of immaturity was evident in the behavior of Bush’s predecessor. President Bill Clinton once even admitted about himself and his wife: "I was born at sixteen and I’ll always feel I’m sixteen. And Hillary was born at age forty." This reflects his early re­sponsibilities as a child, but also the fact that he never overcame those adolescent traits. According to Rich Lowry of the National Review, Clinton, as president, revealed a "death-driven addictive personal­ity with a strong streak of immaturity, an eagerness to please, and a tendency to live in his own, private world." This, too, may be merely a partisan right-wing attack. But many with no ideological axe to grind have said the same thing, like British journalist E. Jane Dickson, who claims that Clinton was the "Ur-adultescent, the naughty boy repressed and excited by controlling women." Of course, not all of our leaders are boy-men, but we seem to elect more than a few of them. That may be because they, more than we fellow boomers would readily admit, represent their generation.

Looking back on my youth, I certainly would not have predicted this for the opening decade of the twenty-first century. Yes, we were rebels in the 1960s, but we thought we were going to build a better world. Along with the grown-up Billy Gray, who as a child played "Bud," the son of Jim Anderson in the 1950s sitcom Father Knows Best, we mocked the phoniness of the perfect family presumably portrayed in such programs. Still, we thought that we would build more honest families, where men related to and didn’t merely lecture at their children and recognized equality between husbands and wives. Without necessarily using these terms, we thought we would improve on the maturity of our fathers, become "new men," a damn sight better than the stick-figure cowboys that played at manhood in silly showdowns on the streets of Tombstone on 1950s TV. We had potluck banquets on Thanksgiving where everyone, men and women, brought dishes, and we reveled in the superiority of our events to the strained family gatherings we knew as children, where women cooked and washed up and men carved (maybe) and watched football. We took to heart Bob Dylan’s words: "Come mothers and fathers / Throughout the land / And don’t criticize / What you can’t understand / Your sons and your daughters / Are beyond your command / Your old road is rapidly agin’. / Please get out of the new one / If you can’t lend your hand / For the times they are a-changin’." This was hardly an anthem of permanent adolescence, but a confident (indeed arrogant) call for a new model of growing up and leadership.

But as we have been lamenting for decades now, it did not happen quite as we had expected. Not only did we become "the man" rather than "new men" and sell out (a fact that is hardly surprising), but, contrary to the oft-stated comment of the cynic, we did not become our fathers. Instead, we reveled in our status as youth long after it was gone. We remained in many ways the teenage sons of our fathers, and some of us never gave up rebelling against our elders. Our joy in rejecting our fathers trumped our vision for a new future.

In April of 1970, when I was an antiwar activist at Washington State University, I wrote a leaflet "warning" students about a band of "troublemakers" who were going to be stationed outside the student union, where Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson was going to speak on the first Earth Day. Of course, those ruffians were we, a small group opposed to Jackson’s support for the defoliation of Vietnam in the raging war of that time. We had cleared the local grocery stores of their marshmallow stocks and made them available to the crowd of students as they entered the hall. Looking back, I can’t imagine why we weren’t arrested. I would never approve of such an act of disre­spect for free speech today. At the time, we thought this was a clever protest of the hypocrisy of our state’s senator, but I still recall being surprised by one thing—the enthusiasm with which the students pelted Jackson. Looking back now, I think what we really were do­ing was throwing marshmallows at our fathers. And, Jackson acted like the father too, bravely taking the "punishment" and telling us we weren’t so clever because others had tried the same trick before. I think he threw some back at us.

I don’t want to reduce 1960s radicalism to an oedipal crisis (it certainly was much more about political and social change). Still, my generation gained more pleasure from rejecting elders and reveling in our youth than in creating a better meaning of maturity. Is it any surprise that Madison Avenue and Hollywood picked up on our joy, selling back our quest for timeless youth as the Pepsi Generation and offering us (and some of our parents who secretly admired our free­dom) "Youngmobiles" (a clever ad name for the stogy Oldsmobile)? We made nostalgia for our youth a standard of fun and freedom. We were still glorying in it in 2006 when the sixty-something Rolling Stones sang their anthem song "Satisfaction" at the fortieth Superbowl halftime show. As the group’s leader, Mick Jagger, noted, the song was older than the Superbowl itself. But my boomer friends and I didn’t care. It reminded us that our youth was still alive (and Jagger proved it in his amazingly spry performance).

Looking back, the problem has been that my generation, despite its fairly normal economic successes, has not produced many paragons of maturity. "I do not see any particularly viable model (of the modern man) being forged to accommodate the expectations of females. Or expectations males have for themselves," said Martin, the forty-six­year-old journalist quoted earlier. "There is not a clear path towards the kind of indisputable maturity that my fathers’ generation could feel."

Is it any surprise that when we rejected the models of our fathers we left our sons with few images of what it meant to be a grown, mature man? While we baby boomers discarded the traditional markers of maturity and tried to recover our boyhood in our leisure hours, our sons’ generation made youth a permanent way of life, at least in their leisure. In the 1960s, youth felt like liberation, but today it is often a burden.

It is not that we are unaware of the problem. Recent films like Sideways portray middle-aged men who haven’t grown up and don’t know how. And contemporary sitcoms built around the peer culture of basement boys (like Two and a Half Men) are as much humorous put-downs of that culture as they are cynical celebrations of it. Since the 1970s, there has been a steady stream of books like The Peter Pan Syndrome lamenting the emotional straitjacketing of men fixated on puerile dreams of male heroism and toughness, frightened of their own feelings, or incapable of rising above a teenager’s narcissism to find lasting relationships. Baby boomer men in their youth may have hoped to improve on their fathers, becoming more engaged parents and partners. Some may have done so, but the dream of a more sensitive manhood has longed turned sour, and today few offspring of baby boomers share that idealism. Instead, today’s young have often embraced the boomers’ rejection of their elders without much vision of the future. The cultures of peers, media, and consumption all conspire to keep men prisoners of their own immaturity no matter the insights and efforts of loved ones, mental health professionals, social reformers, or church leaders. Beyond the narrow and often stultify­ing environs of "life-transforming" cults (like the Promise Keepers or Iron Man retreats), today’s culture has not provided a compelling image of the "grown-up." My generation has indeed failed to provide models of maturity even for the young to rebel against.

This led me to think that I needed to revisit the generation of my father, the people whose maturity made us reject maturity. The ironic fact is that, even though in 1970 we threw marshmallows at the father (at least metaphorically), many of us eventually came around to see him as part of Tom Brokaw’s "Greatest Generation." We admired his adventurous initiation into manhood—World War II&mash;as many of us came to see that experience. We recognized his sacrifice and envied the power and prestige that this seemed to give him after the war—parades for the heroic return of veterans, the GI Bill, and the opportunity to build businesses, careers, and families. We admired especially the seriousness of his life—seen in everything from his growing up during the depression and war to his assuming responsibility for his family (often large) afterward. He was the model of male maturity. When we were children, we saw him in Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Sky King, and Matt Dillon in the westerns. We saw him also in leading men like Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and Spencer Tracy, middle-aged men in our childhoods who seemed to accept graciously their graying hair, widening girths, and adult roles even after exciting youths playing physical, sexy parts. We cannot help but notice the difference between Hugh and Cary Grant.

But there were more subtle "fathers," such as Don Herbert, the science teacher whose Watch Mr. Wizard on Saturday afternoons in the 1950s featured Herbert leading bright teen boys (seldom girls) through experiments, gently correcting their misjudgments while showing them the mysteries of light or explosives. Conductor Leonard Bernstein, whose Young People’s Concerts combined symphonies and lessons in music history and form, was also a model of maturity. And the audience of kids showed respect by all appearing in their Sunday best.

"I looked at my dad and he was my model for being a man and as I got older I wasn’t becoming that person," said Jorge, a fifty-seven­year-old professor in Pennsylvania. "I carried forward into adulthood interests I had developed in childhood like my interest in World War II history and in model airplanes but those weren’t things my dad did. So I had a hard time convincing myself I was an adult. I saw elements of childhood in myself as an adult, so it seemed to me I wasn’t a fully formed adult."

Many of my generation would heartily agree. The so-called Greatest Generation is tacitly the model of manhood that boomer men clearly cannot live up to and their sons scarcely know. And that sense of "inadequacy" is surely part of the problem of the boy-man today.

But thinking more about my father’s generation made me quite naturally recall my father. He hardly fit the image of the Cary Grant of the movies. Few did. Even Cary Grant once said that he wished he could be "Cary Grant." Although my father (born in 1922) was drafted in the army during the war, as a twenty-one-year old he worked in the typing pool at Fort George Wright in Spokane and saw no combat. There he met my seventeen-year-old mother at a roller-skating rink. As a couple, they won trophies for their dancing, but their glory times were short-lived. Marriage came early and so did four children while my father (and mother) studied at the local teacher’s college, where my father eventually got a job as a biology instructor. When the youngest child was barely five, my father "ran off " with his lab assistant. In many ways, he was the rebel that Barbara Ehrenreich writes about in Hearts of Men, who engaged in a "flight from commitment." He went on to teach biology at a California community college and ten years later "ran away" with a second lab assistant. He abandoned a middle-class, middle-age life to go back to graduate school as a forty-three-year-old. But soon he grew restless and, caught up in the counterculture of the late 1960s, he quit his Ph.D. program. He moved into a commune of "geodesic domes" north of San Francisco only to have his third companion move out, leaving him proprietor of a natural-food store. Bored with a life of waiting for people to come to him, in 1975 he threw all of his meager savings into hiring an exclusive matchmaker to get him (as he told me) a "rich and beautiful woman" when he was about fifty-three years old. He succeeded in still another adventure—linking up with a rich (and lovely) woman. The last time I saw him was in 1979 when he was preparing for a round­the-world boat tour. Well, it didn’t happen (I’m not quite sure why), and he abandoned his benefactor, moving on again. In 1988, he died more or less alone at the age of sixty-six at a "residence hotel" in San Francisco. Nothing so Greatest Generation about this life. He was no war hero, avoided responsibility, and in a lot of ways refused to grow up. Of course, it was more complicated: He was dutiful about child support, very supportive of me, and his "rich and beautiful" companion met me to spread his ashes. Though he was a rolling stone, in his few personal effects, he included a card in his wallet showing that he was a docent at the San Francisco zoo.

An unusual story, but, as a historian, I know that his restlessness was hardly unique. My father was one of the rebels and outcasts of his generation. There were different kinds: the Jack Kerouacs on the road and the Allen Ginsbergs howling in San Francisco rejected the provider’s role in the suburban world of houses shaped like "little [cracker] boxes." (I lived in one before my father left). Hugh Hefner is the most obvious example still around. While Hefner has long relished his role as an icon of carefree sexuality, his real achievement is remaining a boy all his life. "Hef " lives on his own playground, complete with fla­mingos, monkeys, peacocks, and the famous "grotto," a cave with a Jacuzzi and places for sex play. This bacchanalian scene is many a boy’s dream of easy sex and careless delight, devoid of the traditional adult realities of family and monogamy. In fact, Hefner and his three live-in ladies of the moment, starred in the E! Network reality hit The Girls Next Door in 2007. In this show, the girls spend their time playing slip’n’slide, modeling bunny costumes, and attending parties, while Hef shuffles around in his P.J.’s with a grin on his face.

This more or less has been Hefner’s life since founding Playboy back in 1953. He built a publishing empire based on the lifestyle of unrealistic and childish male wish fulfillment. Despite his magazine’s long interest in avant-garde arts and literature, Hefner freely admits that his tastes haven’t changed since he was a teenager—beginning with the peanut butter sandwiches and cold chicken that stuff his handy refrigerators. He has never lost his attraction for the blonds, who look eerily like the showgirls in the Busby Berkeley movies of the late 1930s, when Hefner was an impressible boy. He never had to give up those carefree years of chasing girls for maturity in marriage, instead insisting on remaining throughout most of his life the model of the boy-man.

Yes, Hefner did take a brief respite from perpetual adolescence when in July 1989 he married again, at the age of sixty-three, a twenty-six-year-old former Playmate, Kimberley Conrad. But in 1998 they separated, and Hefner returned to his beloved playboy life, moving Kimberly to a house "next door" with their sons. Why couldn’t he give it up? "Maybe experience in life is not what is appealing to me," Hefner confessed in a 2000 interview; "maybe it’s the unsophisticated enthusiasm that comes with youth" that worked for him. He dated the very young, because, although "chronologically, I’m 77, but in reality I’m a very young man." At the mansion, "Life here is a grownup adolescent dream." In fact, Hefner prided himself on his never having to grow up. He refused to take on the role of the elder, reflecting back on both his accomplishments and mistakes, and instead insisted on remaining throughout his entire life the model of the boy-man.

Hefner was not the only icon of boy-man-hood. Less well known was Ed (Big Daddy) Roth. When other men were settling down rais­ing families, this proud boy-man won local fame in southern California as a maker of flamboyant hot rods. In the early 1960s, he designed a popular line of in-your-face T-shirts featuring Rat Fink, a scruffy and cynical reverse of the cute and loveable Mickey Mouse. Disdainful of authority and responsibility for most of his life, Roth represented those men coming out of World War II who could not settle down and, even if they did not always live hard and die young, certainty did not grow up as they grew old.

I see in my father’s generation not only tough models to live up to but harbingers of the rebellion of my generation and the refusal of my sons’ generation to embrace maturity. In truth, of course, this dissidence goes back even further. But it is important to stress that the ideal grown-up of the 1950s and 1960s was hard for even men of that era to live up to. Not only were they supposed to be heroes in war and in work, but experts exhorted them to be modern fathers (and husbands). By the 1940s, the father had very little role in raising or training children, yet he was expected to be "more" than a provider. He was to be a pal to his children as well as a model of responsibility to family and society. Looking back on shows like Father Knows Best, I see not the Olympian patriarch "fixing" the problems of his ordinary family but a weekly course in the fine points of progressive parenting. The father, Jim Anderson, played by Robert Young, let the kids learn from their own mistakes, knew just when to be strong, and could tell the difference between the big and little things even if the kids (and wife) did not. This was a tough and bewildering act to follow for men of that era. And, beginning in the 1950s, some men consciously refused to play the part. Some slipped out the back, Jack. Others found solace in being one of the "boys" at the bar or on the hunting trip. Still others found pleasure in the retreat to the basement workshop. They became the first basement boys.

But the rebels of the Greatest Generation did more than take flight. They took pleasure in the romantic quest for intense and varied experience as well as in a cynical disdain for genteel sensibilities. They were the first generation to be "cool," fascinated with the transgressive and exciting culture of the street and played the role of rebels against bourgeois competition and providership. The "cool," emerging first in the teenage and youth years of my father with comic books, swing and jazz bands, and film noir, responded to longings and feelings that the censors like Hollywood’s Hays Office had long smothered. More subtly, my father’s generation was the first to react openly and massively to the emotional and sexual repression of genteel American society. They were also the first generation to reject as teens the "cute" culture of modern American childhood with its focus on the youngster’s innocent delight and the appreciative if sometimes bemused adult. This nexus, so familiar in the modern rites of family holidays (like the Christmas-morning unwrapping ritual or the obligatory Disneyland trip), was at the heart of the 1950s sitcom and survived in many ways up to The Cosby Show of the late 1980s. But the rebels of my father’s generation saw all this as phony, hypocriti­cal, and sappy. Their rebellion became a lifelong cause. Ed Roth and Hugh Hefner never grew up, and they were proud of it. We see their legacy everywhere in today’s popular culture, from the over-the-top smart-ass cynicism of The Family Guy to the twenty-something self-absorption of Friends.

The making of modern immaturity spans across my, my sons’, and my father’s generations. In different ways, each age group con­tributed to this shift of men to boys. Yet beyond these variations were three trends that encompassed all three generations (and beyond):

1. Our age has systematically rejected the Victorian patriarch without finding an adequate alternative. The decline of deference, the rise of feminism, and the growth of technological innovation has meant that there is much less of a "payoff" for male maturity in families and on the job. Much of this is for the good, but in the process some men have abandoned the traditional ideals of paternal responsibility to family, community, and culture without replacing them with new models of "grown-up" behavior.

2. Over time, being a kid has become much more satisfying than it was in the past when the young submitted to their elders and did without while the aged had distinct privileges. Of course, youth has and continues to have its traumas: work and school, subordination to elders, and the uncertainties of the future that may be even greater today than in the past—and I don’t mean to discount their importance. But these anxieties and frustrations in a context of greater freedom of cultural and consumer expressionin ever expanding venues of youth-oriented movies, TV shows, video games, and amusement parks, for example—produced a longing for and the possibility of ex­periencing the rich but escapist culture of the boy-man. Even after men assume adult roles, they increasingly become nostalgic for the play of their childhood and youth as they age. And, today men are able to extend the pleasures of the cool teen deep into their twenties and beyond because they spend less of their lives in the self-denying settings of family and marriage.

3. Makers of modern consumer and media culture have gradually learned to feed on this rejection of past models of maturity and the desire to return to or retain childhood. In turn, they have figured out how to sell back to men this longed-for image of perpetual youth. Over time, this makes youth, once a life stage, into a permanent and highly desirable lifestyle. The result is that men and boys play with the same toys and are attracted to the same novelties and celebrities in a culture of intensity.


COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Columbia University Press and Copyright © 2008 Gary Cross. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. For more information, please e-mail us or visit the permissions page on our Web site.

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About the Author

Gary Cross is professor of history at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of a number of books on the history of American popular culture, including The Playful Crowd: Pleasure Places in the Twentieth Century; The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children's Culture; An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America; and Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing Worlds of American Childhood.

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