Welcome back to the Art of Manliness Podcast! In this week’s episode we interview Dr. Gary Cross, author of the book Men to Boys:The Making of Modern Immaturity. We discuss the history behind the trend of men putting off responsibilities, like family and career, and instead indulging in pastimes and consumer goods that are commonly associated with teenagers.
Listen to the Podcast!
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another episode of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, a reoccurring theme on The Art of Manliness is that men today are failing to grow up. Many are putting off responsibility careers, marriage and fatherhood, well into adulthood and are dressing and behaving like they are still in high school. But what’s behind this arrested development in men. Well, our guest today has written a book about this very topic, his name is Dr. Gary Cross and he is the author of the book Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity. Dr. Cross is a professor of modern history at Penn State University where he teaches courses on the historical effects of consumerism, technology and leisure on society. Dr. Cross, welcome to the show.
Dr. Gary Cross: Thank you.
Brett: McKay: Well, thank you for taking time to speak with us today. Dr. Cross what inspired you to write this book, Men to Boys?
Dr. Gary Cross: Well, observing a lot of men who were still boys I suppose. One of the things that really struck me was that if I had ran into college and starting to see grad students and others who are often extremely smart and hardworking, but when they came home at night, they played video games the whole evening. And in my teaching, I’d run into young women who take a course I offered on the history of family who said they never really had ever gone out on a date and it struck me, what’s going on, there is something really strange, I mean, these were not unattractive women, but you know back in my days, I’m now 63 that they certainly would have had lots of encounters with the chaps interested in them. It struck me as if they were just a really interesting shift, it seemed to me, in the way really men dealt with their time free from works in particular and I had written on changes in the way people had raised their children, particularly, sort of introduction of the idea of the cool and young people in childhood back in the 1930s. It struck me as well maybe a historian can maybe make a little sense of what’s going on by turning from the present and moving back through the past maybe 60 or 70 years particularly the last 50 years to see really what’s happened.
Brett: McKay: Let’s go on my next question. One of the most interesting arguments you make in your book is that the immaturity of men isn’t a new problem. A lot of people will say oh this is a new problem that we’re facing but you actually argue that this is something that started almost over a century ago. Can you explain at least a bit about the history of male immaturity?
Dr. Gary Cross: Right. There’s a lot about being mature that is, and always has been relatively unattractive, that means having to give up some pleasures, make some sacrifices, start thinking about somebody other than oneself and sometimes that’s also a burden and even when you think of somebody like Mark Twain like in the 19th century and he is writing about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. These are stories that appeal as much to adults as to kids. There are adults that nearly felt that maybe they had lost something by giving up their youth and the same thing that this will be surprising to people but the people who watched the play originally Peter Pan were adults. There was this thing called Peter Pan complex, where you know Peter Pan never grows up. This was a very attractive thing to English and American men (and women too) who found themselves in often long boring jobs, working in offices and feeling sort of unfulfilled by the sort of the forced maturity that they were put in. So, it has been around a lot and for long time that it’s kind of quest for childhood or retaining it or it’s kind of a secret pleasure. In a way that was certainly true, let’s say early Playboy magazines. Playboy comes out in 1953, Hefner does very well with it. And one of the original buyers of that were suburban men with families and driving around in Station Wagons. They got their little dose of fantasy of being a bachelor and going about town by reading their Playboys. So, it’s been around a long time in that way.
Brett McKay: And so mental arrested development has been with us for a while, but is there any differences between the generations and how it’s manifested or the severity of it you know say, Hugh Hefner was a greatest generation guy, is there a difference between him and say the baby boomers and the generation XY.
Dr. Gary Cross: Right. A lot of the book is about the changes over those three generations. I’m in the boomer generation, I’m actually in the senior class of the boomer generation and I look back on at least the idea of the greatest generation and of course these were guys that were in World War II, or III and often had families at a very young age. A man would marry on average at 20 or 21 as late as 1970. So, there has been a lot of change really. Particularly, since the late 60s and early 70s my generation, we kind of broke away from that that sense of early responsibility and often in a big way rejecting it. I believe some of your listeners would remember the movie The Graduate or some of these others that it take this kind of unwillingness to adhere to suburban lifestyle and to settle down and all of that. And what happen even more recently of course is this is a trend that’s accelerated greatly now men marry on average at about 28 or mostly 27 to 28. So, they spend a lot more time away from responsibility and family and raising children and even having steady careers than men did on the generation earlier, in my generation earlier and on the transition. And of course there are huge changes in the popular culture which kind of embraces kind of an ideal manhood, which is not based on providing and taking care of others or refinement, but rather remaining, I suppose, permanently cool teenage boys around video games, around peer personal pleasures and the like. We see this in all sorts of things. One of the things that really amazed me is, I started looking at some contemporary news magazines like Maxx, I mean the whole group that are like that and comparing them to the way the Playboys were back in the 50s and 60s and it’s an astonishingly different. They are appealing to the same audience but it’s just a very different set of attitude and I mean maybe real playboys were a bit pretentious, you know I mean with interviews, having a way and that kind of thing way off as in the past, but then will talk about fine lines and good stereo equipment and all the rest of it, whereas the modern men’s magazines are much more so focused on this kind of immediate pleasures and in a way kind of rejecting the idea of developing skills, developing refined tastes, certainly of course responsible relationships with others.
Brett McKay: And so looking at today, what are the biggest factors driving male immaturity now?
Dr. Gary Cross: Well, I sort of suggest that one is that for a variety of reasons and, I’m not criticizing this necessarily, but for a variety of reasons men are taking much longer to enter into mature roles and relationships and I’m talking about marriage, having children, having regular careers. Somebody have had to deal with the fact that it just takes a lot longer to be established now as opposed to say in the 50s and 60s. If you try to maybe you finished high school you could get a job at GM at 18 and afford to buy a car and got a down payment on a house by the time you are 20, and you can have two or three kids and be a leader in the boy scouts or whatever in the mid-twenties and move on in life that way. And of course that’s much less of a case now as it takes a lot to go to school, but sometimes you are in your 30s before you really have the kind of job that maybe your father or grandfather had when he was in his early 20s. So, with that the other side is though that the whole culture, I know it sounds vague, but it’s in television, the movies and the magazines and of course an advertising, has shifted enormously in the past 30 years or really abandoning sort of older ideas about how valuable and important it was to grow up and so we have movies that kind of feature this sort of ageless action characters who are not about developing relationships but about a very quick and thrilling kinds of fights and struggles and whatnot. So, the culture has abandoned the idea of maturity as well and you see it in things like Two and a Half Men versus not just Father Knows Best, but so many low westerns I used to watch when I was a kid. And one of the thrills for writing this book was to look at some of the old westerns from the 1950s and see them really differently from my age as opposed to when I first watch them as an age of 10-year old. A lot of those stories were really about the struggles to make the right decision and to do something that was self-sacrificing or even heroic rather than self-indulgent and selfish. So that’s across a lot of things.
Brett McKay: And do you think the current economic crisis we are having – do the current economic crisis we are having will have an effect either positive or negative on male immaturity?
Dr. Gary Cross: Well, I think certainly in the short run for a lot of guys it does extend, so we call it, the teen years and teen values because you can afford, let’s say 25 and you have a job say working at Best Buy or whatever a fast food place those were different but, you can maybe afford to buy a 46-inch screen television set and maybe the latest video game equipment but can’t say afford to buy a house or support a family. So, in a way the economic difficulties kind of reinforce these trends I think toward immaturity. But on the other side, the fact that people are going to have to learn to how to pull the resources and maybe hanker down and give up some of the pleasures of one’s youth, this may have just the opposite effect. The thing about all the observations I make in the book about the immaturity of say 36-year old guys who haven’t given up their video games, well, that may not be the point of view of a 20-year old guy who may look at the 36-year old guy and say I don’t want to be like that when I’m 36. And so what happens is generations kind of often change their behavior based upon what they see in the older generation and that might be happening now or right now.
Brett McKay: Yeah, a kind of reaction in the baby boomers or kind of rejection of the grayest generation and the ideals of them and maybe possibly rejection of the baby boomers’ ideals of fancy free.
Dr. Gary Cross: Well, that or even the generation X behaviors, because the generation X people are a lot of them are in their mid-30s or 40s and I mean the baby boom ends about 1964 so anybody born between say 1964 and maybe 1980 would be you know the whole as that put them there, they are up there now and we’re seeing a generation of young who are children not of baby boomers’ in some cases, but of generation X’s so, the generation thing flows fairly quickly.
Brett McKay: Here’s a question Dr. Cross, why does it seem that only men are getting roasted for the behavior. Are women immune from the immaturity or they are having the same problem too?
Dr. Gary Cross: Well, I mean I don’t write about women partly because, I don’t know if I were to write about women people might just think I had a personal problem or something and I don’t really know the situation as well as on the men’s side and to seems like then not to write about men when it comes to questions of their immaturity. But, obviously there are a lot of women who collect Barbie dolls, who in the way that men might collect action figures. I’ve had grad students who are over 30 years old who decorate their little cubicles with Star Wars figures. Well, the women don’t do that, so obvious that they did do it in various places and then ending up in the wrong way except for the fact that maybe the taste might change by the time they are 35. The other thing of course is that a fair number of women of course have a little bit different issue because in a way once they have children they’re at least some of them are kind of obliged to kind of give up their childhoods. Although some of them, I think, live their childhoods through their children , so it’s complicated in that way so but it’s definitely not an all-male thing. The simple fact is that the culture not only sort of glorifies youths and particularly the cool years of teenhood, but doesn’t particularly honor maturity in the sense of either being older or the sense of having made accomplishments or honor those who make sacrifices for the sake of the next generation or for other people who in their worlds who may need them. We tend to honor the person who knows how to dress well, knows how to spend well on himself, who has a very strong sense of personal self and who enjoys life and is in no rush to get old. I mean look at somebody like Hugh Hefner, the guy is about 84 or something.
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Dr. Gary Cross: And some of your listeners have probably have seen The Girls Next Door, it’s pretty hard to take that seriously. But a lot of people say wow, attaboy, there’s an 84-year old who can do that, and risking a fantasy like maybe I can do it too. Well, maybe you can but why should you, that’s the point but the whole cultures say you should, yeah.
Brett McKay: So, Dr. Cross, we know the problem exists, but after studying the history of masculinity and all that you’ve done in your book, do you have any suggestions or do you come with anything that we can do to solve this?
Dr. Gary Cross: Well, I think at some level it’s really a matter of personal decisions, it’s sort of how you kind of conduct yourself and realize I mean there are several things; one is that even if the culture doesn’t honor maturity in the way maybe it used to, and even if it takes a long time to get to a position of maturity, for the reasons that I have described, it doesn’t mean you can’t define new ways of being a grown up. It doesn’t mean you have to wear fedora like the fellow who used to coach the Dallas Cowboys, I can’t remember his name but…
Brett: McKay: Tom Landry.
Dr. Gary Cross: Yeah, Tom Landry, he was famous. He always wore the fedora and the tie and, well, we don’t have to do that anymore. We don’t need those kinds of symbols and we don’t need to be bossy and push our spouses or children around. But we can develop ways of connecting with the younger generation, the nurturing and some of this can be done in the simplest kinds of forms, just getting involved with youth groups or taking an interest in your nephews and nieces, those sorts of things and recognizing that at certain points you are not 18 and 20 and there is some nice things about not being 18 or 20, you have a different perspective on life. Learn to be appreciative of the next phase in life. Don’t try to resist it, it’s not to say you should become some boring old Phoebe at 30 years old, nobody wants that. But learn that being older sometimes provides you with the kind of a new outlook and a fresh way of being and then also I think on your site you’ve mentioned these things, develop refinements, hobbies, interests that are above much more than the sort of the latest thing, the next Shoot ‘Em Up, first-person shooter video game, or the latest in popular music or dress or whatever. Part of being grown up is to build up; it’s not just to wait for the novelty parade to come by. So, there’s lot of things to be done and I’m hopeful that even though it’s hard, I think, to be grown up and in some ways we have to redefine what it means to be a grown up and that’s been very hard for us to. There are ways to doing it and I’m pretty confident that a lot of guys will do it.
Brett McKay: Well, Dr. Cross, thank you for your time, it’s been very interesting talking to you.
Dr. Gary Cross: Have a good day.
Brett McKay: Our guest today was Dr. Gary Cross. Dr. Cross is the author of the book Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity and you can pick up Dr. Cross’s book at amazon.com, or any other major book store.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com, and until next week stay manly.