"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, March 31, 2006

Where are the boys?

The latest piece (linked through the above title) about the increasing number of young men living with their parents, a phenomenon not limited to race, class, or country, is one more bit of evidence that young men are, on average, becoming less motivated and educated than young women. Nobody is quite sure why. But I believe that, in the West, it is a sign of the suicide of the West.

What tends to motivate people to grow up are marriage and work. For ordinary men who aren't creative, self-motivated professionals, marriage has ordinarily tended to motivate work when nothing else would. The same goes even for divorced men. I myself work at a job that doesn't interest me, and that is well beneath my abilities, because I must pay child support. The sort of job for which I'm best qualified has never been plentiful; I'm considered overqualified for nearly any other sort of job for which qualifications matter; so I have one for which qualifications don't matter. Until my luck changes—which will probably only happen after much more hard work to that end—the only alternative scenario is homelessness and jail. If I had a third way—living rent-free and otherwise low-cost with relatives so that I could pursue my writing and research—I would not hesitate to do so. But that's not the sort of attitude that's worrisome in itself and that one finds in the legion of young layabouts today. They just don't seem to care about doing anything constructive with their lives. They are not motivated by marriage and work. That is very worrisome indeed. But why aren't they?

Any answer is necessarily going to be speculative at this point, but I have a strong intuition about what it should contain. Clearly, young men are less and less motivated than previous generations by marriage and work because they are losing the conviction that either is worth the effort. One reason for that is that their parents, the government, or whomever are able to support them while they play their games—whatever the games may be in the particular case. Economic growth worldwide makes that possible to a degree unprecedented in prior generations. Why endure the unpleasantness of reporting to a job or doing the academic grind when one can lead a perfectly comfortable, carefee life without doing so? But of course, that doesn't explain why young women, who presumably have the same option open to them to the same extent, are not availing themselves more of it.

I believe I have the answer. I can't prove it and I doubt it will be popular. But I am certain of it.

The problem is that the kind of society we have in the West today, which is spreading gradually througout the world, does not give most young men any model or reason for being men. Athletic and military pursuits still retain their macho appeal, of course, but the majority of young men today will never be able to define who they are by such means. The same goes for other physically challenging pursuits. While the vast majority of risky, dangerous jobs are still done by men and probably always will be, they are only a small percentage of jobs. For the most part and for the vast majority of men, the reasons people can think of and give for motivating them have nothing to do with their being men. You work so that you can have what you need and want without being a burden to others; you marry because love and children are Good Things. All that is true, but it holds for both sexes indifferently. What does it mean to be a man as distinct from a woman, and how does one become that? I challenge you to come up with one person in ten nowadays who can give a serious answer. Many would even reject the question. But most men need to understand what it is to be a man in relation to women and work if they are going to be motivated to relate to either responsibly.

Women tend not to understand that because they are what they are without having to do anything specific beyond what they have always been uniquely equipped by nature to do. When they marry, bear children, and raise them, they are the "heart" of society. Most young women take that option for granted, and can function accordingly in a "womanly" manner, even when they choose not to exercise it. The answer to the question "What is it to be a woman?" is thus obvious even when not articulated. A woman is something one is. But a man is something one becomes. Maleness in the spiritual sense, as distinct from its rather minimal biological sense, is an achievement not a given. So when a young man hasn't been given any clear guidance about what that achievement would distinctively look like, he is not motivated to pursue it. How can you be motivated to pursue what you do not know and have been led, in many cases, to believe you shouldn't even ask about?

Actually, it's even worse than that. Maleness and fatherhood are unfashionable. It's socially acceptable now to make fun of masculinity but not of femininity. In the application of family law, fathers are often treated as little more than sperm donors and cash cows. Beyond that, fatherhood is no longer widely understood and valued because authority, of which fatherhood is perhaps the most basic form, is now understood in purely functional terms when it is not denigrated altogether.

Accordingly, we are witnessing the slow suicide of the West, expressed in family breakdown, rampant sexual irresponsibility, and birth rates below replacement level. Most people give little thought to that. They had better start before there's nothing left worth thinking about.
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