Peter Pans

Maybe you too have the eerie sense that a fair number of young men are not growing up fully. In this respect, they are Peter Pans.

I find it hard to state this thesis clearly. Toward the beginning of my “Secular Monks” piece, I gesture in this direction:

Recently, I began to notice that well-educated, bright, well-off, urban thirty-five- to forty-five-year-old heterosexual American men are tending either to remain single or to marry late in life. When they do marry, they have few children. One client of mine, a cofounder of a startup, conducted a straw poll and found that half of his two dozen male friends in this age range were unmarried, and only three had children.

The United States Census finds that fewer American men are married than ever before (only 52 percent, with 36 percent never having been married as of 2018), and that those who marry do so later in life. (The mean age of men at time of marriage in 2018 was thirty; in 1950, it was twenty-four). Upon marrying, they have fewer children (1.9 children in 2018 versus 2.3 in 1971). These trends are not confined to the United States. According to Euromonitor International, a marketing research firm in London, households in developed countries are getting smaller: In 2012, couples without children began to outnumber couples with children worldwide, and a scant 0.4 children per household is projected in developed countries by 2030. These numbers are consistent with broader trends toward singlehood status in the United States: Fewer Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four are involved in romantic relationships (51 percent, reports the Washington Post), and more and more Americans are remaining single for long stretches of their lives. Apparently, Americans aren’t just bowling alone.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the case of eligible unmarried heterosexual men since the latter is merely meant to be a pointer to something mysteriously greater. After all, once we go searching, we could find any number of explanations such as the European Marriage Pattern:

The European Marriage Pattern (henceforth EMP) is a concept devised in 1965 by John Hajnal, who argued that parts of Europe had since the sixteenth century been characterized by a household formation system involving late female marriage, high female celibacy, and formation of a separate household on marriage causing nuclear-family households to predominate.

Perhaps the historical conditions right now are exacerbating EMP; this might very well be true; in fact, I suspect that it is.

OK then, if I’m not strictly concerned with smaller families and with fewer marriages, then what am I concerned with?

I have the deep impression that the following are true:

–that a fair number of younger men aren’t coming to take full responsibility for how they lead their lives;

–that less, in terms of responsibilities to others, is being asked, even demanded of said younger men;

–that, at this point in time, fewer rites of passage or elders are around to help facilitate the transition beyond adolescence and into full-blown adulthood (for instance, college is largely a time to “hook up” and get credentialized, a process that often habituates one more readily into atomized individuality);

–that having the capacity to be a friend to all, a neighbor to some, and a supporter of a few has not been developed nor has it had much of a chance to develop;

–that, consequently, pride, or self-will, has not been deconstructed and thus has not given way to humility, or acting responsibly for the sake of others.

The Peter Pans out there–and there are many, in my estimation–are thus not helped out of the fantasy when they believe that living and surfing in Bali while doing remote work is “cool” and “phenomenal.” In fact, it is a terrible way to be lost without being able to see, because of deep-seeded pride and because of the lack of help from others, that one really is lost. But lost they are.

I tell you a good life has heft and girth. A good man, portly therefore, accepts that he can’t keep running away, can’t keep checking out and shutting down but must, with an almost divine gladness, embrace being of great help to others. He must open up and then life, mysteriously, helpfully, opens to him.