Family, Self

Are Men Today Really Irresponsible, Overgrown Adolescents?

Men playing video games

If you were to scan the news headlines over the past few months, the primary message you would glean about men in America would be this: They are failing. Failing to become adults; failing to be financially independent; failing as fathers; failing as husbands. It's enough to make a girl like myself throw her hands up in the air and vow to be single for the rest of her life.

Yet, whose standards are we going by here? And what if all these statistics about men in their 20s and 30s living lives of self-indulgent abandon, delaying marriage, and being neglectful fathers aren't nearly as black and white as they seem? What if there's more going on beneath the surface, and what about all the men who don't fall into those categories? The ones who are involved fathers, devoted husbands, and successful career men. Isn't it high time we gave them a little bit of press? 

According to a New York Times article, many men in American have failed to achieve the five specific markers sociologists call the "Milestones of Adulthood." Namely:

1. Finishing college
2. Leaving home
3. Gaining financial independence
4. Getting married
5. Having children

The article also insists that most, if not all, of these things should be accomplished by the age of 30. 

Derek, 27, at first glance is one of those guys the New York Times was referring to. But he resists the label.

"Why is 30 the magic age?" Derek asks. "People live a lot longer than ever before, so guys nowadays don't mind taking extra time to get the partying out of their systems, figure out who they are and what they value. Why rush to get married if you haven't done any of that yet? I think it's better to wait and take your time finding the right person."

Matt is 30 and admits that he is "one of those guys" still stuck in adolescence so he has a different perspective on the matter. Matt spent much of his 20s goofing off and acting rebellious, and now believes that many of the men his age who drink beer and engage in X-Box marathons do so as a type of coping mechanism because they aren't fulfilled with their jobs or their places in life.

"At this point, I'd love to be more of an adult," Matt says. "I want a career, I want to settle down, but the reality is that it takes four to five years to finish college before you can really do any of that." Matt works part-time as a server while finishing up his bachelor's degree in business management. When I asked him how he would define adulthood, he takes the definition one step beyond financial independence, and says that adulthood occurs when people have someone or something else that is financially dependent upon them.

"If I have a slow week at the restaurant, it doesn't matter much. I just have to support myself and there's little responsibility. If I had to support a wife or child or sibling or dog, even, that would be a totally different story. The act of taking that on makes you more of an adult, I think."

Indeed, being the provider is still first and foremost in the minds of many American men, and that could be a definite reason as to why men today are marrying at a later age than ever before. When I asked all the single guys I interviewed if they would ever propose to a girl at a time when they weren't financially stable, their answer was a resounding "No." They all recognized that marriage can be difficult, and that adding financial stress to the equation probably wasn't the best idea. 75% Of Women Would Not Marry Someone In This Circumstance

Rather than being flippant about their roles as husbands and fathers, many felt that waiting to begin either of those life stages was an integral part of taking them seriously.

"I'm going to be a dad for the first time in December," says Ryan, age 33, "and I've waited a long time to say that." Ryan is a professional musician. He plays the standing bass in various jazz trios throughout Southern California, and has been with his wife for 11 years. "We dated six years, were engaged for one, and have been married for four. I didn't want to rush into anything because I know too many musicians who have screwed up their families on account of their careers."

Ryan spent an entire year mentally preparing for fatherhood, and coming to the point where he could confidently put his children first. He talks about his love of music and how he was originally inspired to pursue it after taking a college course on Duke Ellington. Yet, he also admits, "If I have to hang it all up as a musician because my kid is starving, or my wife is about to leave me, then I will. I'll hang it up."

Bryant is 21, a father, and quick to put his family first; yet, unlike Ryan, he did not spend years preparing for fatherhood and marriage. Bryant met his wife when he was 17 years old and then married her two years later when she became pregnant. "We knew we loved each other anyway," he says, "so we got married two weeks before the baby was due because we wanted to start things out right."

Bryant's son is 15 months old and he loves spending as much time with him as possible. "I'm young, so I have lots of energy," he says. "I'm always jumping with him, playing hide and seek, reading to him, and teaching him Spanish." Although he wasn't planning to be a husband and father at such a young age, Bryant says he wouldn't change it for anything.

Chris resolutely agrees. Chris is 34 years old and has an 8-year-old daughter. He and his wife took the opposite approach of Bryant, and waited until their daughter was four years old before finally tying the knot. "We loved each other, but never really thought about marriage. It just wasn't important to us," he says.

Even Chris, who has acted maturely and is quite content with his life, has not technically surpassed all the Milestones of Adulthood. He hasn't finished college and is in the process of taking classes towards becoming a Systems Administrator for a large company.

Perhaps our definition of adulthood needs a bit of reassessing. Being A Single Parent Has Made Me A Better (Future) Husband

Stephen, 28, has worked as a youth pastor, tutor, and substitute teacher. He would define adulthood as being able to embrace all of one's past and come to terms with both the good and the bad. He observed that all of the societal markers of adulthood outlined in the Times were external factors that said little about how a person was growing internally. "You can be very childish and be married," he notes. "You can be financially stable, but not at all mature."

He also gave a definition of success that I found most interesting. "I would say it has to do with endurance and finishing well," he started. "It's about being faithful to your life's calling, whatever that is. Maybe we can't even define how successful we are until the end of our lives?" 

It's a comforting thought—even for those guys who haven't been getting it right. Yet, we shouldn't discount the many who are. Despite all the Seth Rogen movies, political sex scandals, and articles accusing men of being terrible males and fathers, there are still those who give us hope that perhaps the state of manhood in America isn't as dismal as it seems.