By Lil Tuttle

They met as freshmen in college – he in pre-law, she in history and government – and never dated anyone else. After graduation, she chose a job in Washington DC for its close proximity to his law school. When she told her parents that they were thinking of sharing an apartment to save money, her mother offered a little time-honored advice: men crave sex, domestic comforts, and long-term respect, while women crave relationship, domestic stability and long-term security. Don't meet his needs until he meets yours (which, incidentally, is called marriage). She got her own apartment, rose rapidly in her career, continued dating him and said "I do" on the same day he learned he'd passed the bar exam. Now 30, her biological alarm has gone off, and they are planning their first child.

This couple falls generally into Kay Hymowitz's "Neo-Traditional" category of modern college graduates who, after a decade or so of intense personal and career development, eventually marry and settle into a satisfying family life. This group's 'life story' has a better chance at a happy ending, suggests Hymowitz in her book, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys, than many of their college peers, who are crashing over the guard rails of the rocky, unmapped dating-and-mating road paved by the pill, feminism, and the Knowledge Economy.

As market capitalism empowered women in the last half century to participate in the work force by with safe birth control and technologies that eased their domestic burdens, feminism encouraged them to trade in family aspirations for the chance to outdo men in the casual sex, education and career game of life.

You go, girl, became the mantra in the New Girl Order, and go they did. Women aged 25 to 34 with a bachelor (or better) degree began outnumbering men in the 1980s, and today they earn 58% of all degrees awarded. (This is not an American phenomenon, Hymowitz notes: "women earn more college degrees than men in 67 of 120 nations.")

In 1960 a mere 3% of law school graduates—and 6% of medical school graduates—were women; today they are at near parity with men at 47% and 49%, respectively. Women in this age group also beat men in earnings: A recent study found that the unmarried, childless female college grad earns, on average, more than her male peers in 147 of the 150 largest U.S. cities.

"Failing to recognize the signs that young women were already on academic and psychological steroids, legislators and policymakers took their cue from backward-looking experts," writes Hymowitz. "Girls needed more attention, more encouragement, and more ambition, they agreed." And they got it with even more government programs and scholarships.

Yet "the success of feminism's siren call to the workplace," says the author, required "an economy that could provide a wealth of fulfilling jobs." As if on cue, the new Knowledge Economy emerged. While the old Industrial Economy valued men's innate skills of strength, endurance and individual competitiveness, the new Knowledge Economy values women's innate skills: organization, focus, creativity, diligence, and networking. "It may not be pleasant to say so," writes Hymowitz, "but manufacturing's loss has been women's gain."

Preadulthood: the new Adolescence

The computer and Internet revolution of the 1990s brought "a mega-kiloton explosion of career possibilities" for educated, upwardly mobile, unmarried, childless twenty-somethings of both sexes.

Career choice became less about landing a good job and more about "finding one's passion.” With no life script for this quest, young college grads may wander from job to job for years and, on occasion, find themselves back in their childhood bedrooms for unexpected, extended stays.

One consequence of the Knowledge Economy phenomenon is a new demographic of young people who postpone adulthood for a decade or more. It is a state of life the author calls preadulthood—a 21st century extension of the 20th century's adolescence—that she defines as "without stable employment, quasi-permanent independent residence, wives, husbands, or child." With the shift in the median age of marriage from 23.2 in 1970 to 28 today, scores of preadults are populating metropolitan areas in particular.

If the New Girl Order alpha-girl in this demographic group is ambitious, hyper-organized, mature and sophisticated, her "fun-house mirror image" is the child-man: a passive, vague, crude, happily immature and unsophisticated slacker.

Feminists theorize he is a deliberate backlash against women's progress, but the evidence suggests that the child-man is a product of nearly a century of increasing societal male-bashing combined with diminishing respect for the traditional role of men as providers, protectors, husbands and fathers.

The child-man, then, is the lost son of a host of economic and cultural changes: the demographic shift I call preadulthood, the Playboy philosophy, feminism, the wild west of our new media, and a shrugging iffiness on the subject of husbands and fathers. He has no life script, no special reason to grow up. Of course, you shouldn't feel too bad for him; he's having a good enough time. But preening with a sense of entitlement he is not. In fact, after passing through boyhood and adolescence, he arrives at preadulthood with the distinct sense that he is dispensable, that being a guy is a little embarrassing and that given his social ambiguity, he might as well just play with the many toys (and babes—he hopes) his culture has generously provided him. After all, he is free as men have never been free before. (p136)

Acknowledging that it may be "impossible to prove for certain," the author points to longitudinal studies which suggest that "the loss of the almost universal male life script—manhood defined by marriage and fatherhood—is key to the mystery of the child-man." Men tend to work harder, strive for success in their career, and earn more if it improves their chances of marrying a quality woman. If no such marriage returns to career choices exist, "men would tend to work less, study less, and choose blue-collar jobs over white-collar jobs." In short, "men succeed to prove themselves to potential partners."

Adulthood Eventually, but What Will it Be Like?

"If preadulthood is an enlightened philosopher when it comes to work and self-fulfillment," writes Hymowitz, "it is a lazy mute when it comes to love, sex, and marriage."

The old conventions have been discarded, but new ones haven't been written. Neither guys nor gals can clearly read today's mating signals: is the interest in hooking up, or settling down? Personal dating rules (read: expectations) still exist, but they vary from person to person and are rarely telegraphed in advance. Consequently, dating becomes a baffling guessing game that too often breeds cynicism, hostility and bitterness in both sexes. And both share the blame.

What it adds up to is that neither sex can be trusted. Men cheat because they are always hunting for variety, while women double-deal because they are always prowling for higher-status males. "Attractive single girls not only dropped their 'dates' at the slightest whiff of a bigger, better deal, they routinely betrayed their girlfriends, too," Toby Young, a British author who lived in New York for five years, wrote about his sojourn there in his dismissive review of the movie Sex and the City.

Time favors the male of the species, not the female. "For women [there] is a gap between the cultural ideals behind preadulthood—equality, freedom, personal achievement, sexual self-expression—and biology's pitiless clock," writes Hymowitz. His mating season extends well into the 30s; hers beings diminishing by that age in terms of both starting a family and the size of the mating pool.

In sadly funny ways, Hymowitz describes the future of those who play too long in the mating pool:

  • The Darwinian Playboy—wounded and mistrustful, focused on having a lot of sex with a lot of women, by mid-40s doing a comb-over for his balding head and wearing leather jackets to cover up his gut when he goes to bars to pick up women (few of whom are interested)
  • The Single-and-Loving-It Woman—chose the Darwinian Playgirl lifestyle, maybe married once but divorced, travels a lot, dotes on her nieces and nephews, occasionally dates (with rare serious or sexual encounters, dropping to zero as years progress)
  • The Choice Mother—hoped she'd find Mr. Big for a husband, lived for a while with a guy in her 20s, fell in love with her career instead, finally settled for a fertility clinic and a baby to raise on her own at 35
  • The Starter Marriage—Alpha Girl dated a Child-Man for 3 years, had a "cool" wedding avoiding words like "love" and "forever," out of there by age 30, now engaged and planning her next big wedding (ignoring statistical chances of second-time-around's success)

Then there's The Neo-Traditional, the scenario similar to the young married couple discussed earlier. They may meet in college, date briefly, go their separate ways, meet again, get serious, get married, and have a family. This group still represents the overwhelming majority of college grads, but trends are not in their favor: 84% of college men marry today, but it was 93% in 1980; 86% of college women marry, down from 92% in 1980.

"Nonattachment and self interest: these don't seem like the right groundwork for the marriages that most young people say they want, but that's what they often find themselves practicing," concludes Hymowitz.

"Both sexes still say they want to have satisfying family lives. If that's going to happen, young women will have to get a better understanding of the limitations imposed by their bodies. And young men? They'll need to man up."

Reflecting on Kay Hymowitz’s well-documented book, I couldn’t help think it might be time for us girls to ‘woman up’, too.