A couple of people sent me the link last week to this hilarious Onion News Network video: Obama Releases 500,000 men from the National Strategic Bachelor Reserve. (You’ll need to watch a very short ad first before the two-minute spoof starts. There is mild profanity within the video as well.) The report speaks of an “Eligible Male Task Force” designed to combat the critical shortage of “Men who are Looking for Something Serious,” and the graphics are splendid. (There’s even a subtle jab at Henry Waxman, my splendid congressman). Watch it all twice.
It’s been nearly a quarter-century since the “man shortage” became a topic of national media hype. The genesis of the scare was a single Newsweek article from June 1986: Too Late for Prince Charming?
The traumatic news came buried in an arid demographic study titled, innocently enough, “Marriage Patterns in the United States.” But the dire statistics confirmed what everybody suspected all along: that many women who seem to have it allâ€”good looks and good jobs, advanced degrees and high salariesâ€”will never have mates. According to the report, white, college-educated women born in the mid-’50s who are still single at 30 have only a 20 percent chance of marrying. By the age of 35 the odds drop to 5 percent. Forty-year-olds are more likely to be killed by a terrorist: they have a minuscule 2.6 percent probability of tying the knot.
That whopping bit of hyperbole in bold (as if there’s ever been a 2.6% chance of being killed by a terrorist) became the “killer quote” that drove the whole discussion. Even when the report (as well as the rhetorical overkill about it) was debunked, the fears that the Elaine Salholz article aroused remained. Nearly 25 years later, I still occasionally hear people use that “greater chance of being killed by a terrorist than meeting a good guy” trope.
The most savvy exploiters of the fears the Salholz piece aroused were social conservatives, who saw the chance to blame feminism for the “problem.” Women, right-wingers argued, needed to honor immutable biological truths, starting with the fact that both their fertility and their desirability peak in their late teens and early twenties. Rather than being misled by feminists into focusing on education and career, young women should leverage their sexual and reproductive power when it is at its maximum, while they can still “land a good man.” (Robert Herrick, call your office.) The conservative message was simple: focusing on career and personal fulfillment when you’re young in the expectation of easily finding a man when you’re ready to settle down was a recipe for heartache and loneliness. The feminists are lying to you, the far right said; we’re telling you the truth. Look at the facts.
Except the facts didn’t turn out to be true, as countless follow-up reports on the “marriage crunch” demonstrated. The marriage crunch, if it exists as a problem at all, is found among those least likely to go to college. Those who have most successfully made use of feminism’s promise are more likely to wed (and have children after marriage rather than before) than their poorer sisters. Even the social conservatives have changed their tune, pointing out that the marriage culture is thriving among urban liberal “elites” while it falls apart among the white and non-white urban and rural working classes. (This time, it’s feminism’s fault for making working-class men without college educations feel useless and unappreciated. The villain always remains the same.)
I think there are two related factors that continue to drive this focus on the “good man shortage.” One is, as I’ve said, political: the man shortage is oversold as a scare tactic. Women who are frightened of finding an eligible man to marry will be more likely to settle and settle early. They will be less competitive in the work force. As we see male anxiety rising over women’s growing participation in public life, we can see the manufactured anxiety about finding a man serving useful anti-feminist goals. As Susan Faludi wrote almost twenty years ago, this is part and parcel of the backlash.
But not all of the sense that “good men are hard to find” is a right-wing creation. To the extent that this is a real problem at all, it lies in our remarkable willingness to encourage young men to take an extraordinarily long time to grow up. Adolescence, for many middle-class males, is now a multi-decade project (a point made in Michael Kimmel’s wonderful Guyland, which I reviewed here.) I wrote in 2007:
To quote my father, too many young men are â€œwaiting to be struck by certainty.â€ Too many young men figure that getting a graduate degree, making a decent living, and building a stable and successful life can â€œhappen laterâ€ after theyâ€™ve â€œgrown up.â€ (And anecdotally, the number of men in their mid-to-late 20s using the phrase â€œwhen I grow upâ€ is nothing short of alarming.) We have a generation of young men who seem to lack the urgency and the ambition of their sisters. They havenâ€™t been shamed out of it, they havenâ€™t been actively discouraged â€” but they havenâ€™t been sufficiently encouraged, either. They are waiting, waiting, waiting; waiting perhaps for a sudden beam of inspiration from above that will tell them exactly what they are to do with their lives. Until then, theyâ€™ll do a little of this and a little of that, theyâ€™ll hook up here and move in there, and theyâ€™ll put off pursuing a goal until they figure out what the heck it is that they want to do. And as many of the sisters, mothers, and girlfriends of these lads know, some men can put off that â€œgrowing upâ€ until they are well into middle age.
Our culture is too easy on our young men, frankly. Anxious parents worry about boysâ€™ poor attention spans, and complain that classes today are too detailed-oriented. That ought to send any historian of education into gales of laughter; look at the the young rabbinical students â€” all boys â€” who memorize the entire Torah by sixteen; look at the the demanding curricula (Greek, Latin, etcetera) of many nineteenth-century American universities. All male student bodies proved perfectly capable of feats of concentration and hard work, and they didnâ€™t need huge doses of Ritalin to do it. I have no desire to return to the limited and extremely demanding educational philosophy of an earlier generation, but it seems absurd to suggest that â€œboys canâ€™t concentrate as well as girls.â€ (Plenty of boys prove to be positive miracles of concentration when playing video games!)
There is a time and place for dreams. But the American middle class allows too many of their sons to dream to distraction. For fear of alienating them, for fear of repressing what we insist on believing is their innate masculine wildness, we allow them to â€œexploreâ€ and â€œwanderâ€ for a very, very long (much too long) time. We all know a lot of handsome, dreamy-eyed slacker boys, a year or two out of college, drifting through their twenties on drugs and theories, waiting, waiting, waiting, to be struck by certainty. And it is these boys â€” for boys they still are â€” who are one big whopping reason why, in our urban centers, incomes for young men have fallen so badly in comparison to their sisters.
So when we look at the very funny Onion video that mocks a real discourse in our pop culture, when we hear someone quote that old lie about terrorist attacks and marriage chances,or when we hear a woman in her thirties or forties express frustration and worry about “finding a good guy”, we need to remember two things. One, the odds are better than we realize and the
fear is largely fabricated; two, to the extent that this is a real problem at all, it lies in our refusal to make demands of our sons and our brothers that they embrace adulthood and responsibility.