I was texting with a college professor friend last night about various things. We got to talking about social trends. He said he is ticked off about young men who won’t marry their girlfriends, and the young women who rationalize and defend their unmanly behavior. The professor said that he has seen lots of women delude themselves with the belief that they have all the time in the world to get their lives sorted, to start families, and the like. It’s a lie, but it’s a lie that brings comfort to women who find themselves surrounded by men-children who won’t grow up.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in part because my oldest, a boy, turned 18 recently. How well did he absorb the moral framework within which he was raised? We’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. My college prof friend, a late Boomer, said that he’s unnerved by how cold and transactional young people have become about sex today. It’s almost entirely separated from love and tenderness. We talked briefly about the effect of pornography on the imagination of young adults today. Is it even possible for them to conceive of a world in which sex is reserved for committed love and that alone? Or are they as fatalistic as the French philosopher who told me that belief in God is not possible for the French, who decided some time ago that materialism is true?
I was having a conversation not long ago with a young woman — the daughter of a friend — who is in a relationship with a guy who is jobless, without a college degree, and still living at home with his parents. She’s educated, smart, healthy, beautiful … and going nowhere with this guy, or so it appears by her telling. She’s still young, but I warned her that this won’t last. This is not something that is at all easy for people in their twenties to conceptualize. But it’s true: time passes much faster than you think it will, and before you know it, you’re in your thirties, and things get real serious.
But it’s easy to pretend that you’re still young, and you have time yet to become an “adult,” in the sense of making commitments to marriage, to career, and even to family. One year slips into another, though, and somehow you’re not married, and you’re looking at the prospect of starting a family in your mid to late 30s. If, that is, you can find a man willing to commit to you, and worth committing to. By then, though, the unmarried men in your age cohort may well be dating women in their twenties. The choices you thought would be all but infinite, forever, are suddenly — even shockingly — constricted.
And you can’t get that time back.
Like I said, my wife and I won’t know if the way we’re raising our kids will make a difference in helping them to escape this trap. I do know that I hear with disquieting frequency of friends whose kids are older, and who are disappointed that their adult children have stepped onto the cohabitation treadmill.
I don’t know enough about female psychology to say, but for guys who have no religious faith telling them that they should marry, unless you give them a firm reason to bind themselves to one woman, forever, they’re going to resist marriage. It’s in their nature not to want to be tied down. Of course a mature young man is going to have his passions formed towards desiring the permanence of a wife and family — but we have gotten very good in this culture of raising self-centered failsons, or if not quite failures, then men who make money but who want to keep their options permanently open.
Agreed, marriage isn’t everybody’s calling. I’ve known men and women who wanted to get married, and really tried, but things just haven’t worked out. I’m not talking about people like that. I’m talking about the young people — especially the young men — who don’t see marriage and family as serious life goals, or if they do, who believe that pursuing them is something they can put off indefinitely.
I’m curious to hear from readers of all generations about their own experiences on this front, and their experiences with their adult children. What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self? What advice would you give to parents in the middle of raising kids, who want to raise them to be desire marriage and family?
UPDATE: A great comment by reader C.L.H. Daniels:
To my 23-year old self? Boy howdy. I’m 33 now, and let me tell you, it is amazing how much growing up I’ve done in 10 years (and particularly the last 3 or 4); that’s certainly the way it feels anyway. I think when you’re in your early 20’s you believe you’re an adult because society says you are one, but in my lived experience your 20’s these days is just an extended adolescence, all the more so because no one really seems to expect anything else. It feels like there’s plenty of time, and that it’s OK to waste some of it on feeling good.
If I could give my 23-year old self advice, it would be along the lines of, “Don’t sit around and just believe that everything you want will come to you. You have to work for it. Set some goals, and then work toward them.”
I was directionless at that age. I’d tried a couple different careers which hadn’t panned out. I’d shortly wind up at the company I’m currently at, but not through any real agency of my own – a friend who knew I was between jobs would refer me and I would take the job because I had no other plan, and no idea of what I wanted to do with my life.
For the next 5-6 years I worked at a job I didn’t hate and was good at, but it wasn’t especially fulfilling either. In my personal life I wasted time on trivialities like drinking and video games. I couldn’t be bothered to cook half the time so I’d eat out a lot. I gained weight. I wasn’t attractive, physically or personally.
I don’t know what exactly kicked me back into gear, but I’m sure approaching 30 probably started to focus my mind. I think the catalyst was when a good work friend left the company for a higher paying job, which made me question what I was doing. Did I want to stay, did I want to go? I decided to stay and pursue a second bachelor’s degree in Computer Science online. I transferred out of a client services management role into software development. I started working on myself. I started cooking every night, working out, and lost weight. I recently met someone after several fruitless years experimenting with online dating, and it’s going well so far.
The funny thing is, I guess I was one of those “mature young men” in that I always intended to get married and start a family, but it just never happened for me at a younger age (and moreover, “mature” was not a good description of me then). I dated a girl from my hometown who was going to university here for several months shortly after moving, but it wasn’t a good relationship and it ended. Thereafter, my love life was uneventful. I didn’t try that hard to meet people, and so unsurprisingly, I didn’t. Time just flew by, mostly wasted in retrospect.
The problem I think is that no one tells you how this works. No one tells you about how you’ll end up regretting the time you wasted just doing what made you feel good in the moment. No one gives you a list of choices; you’re left to find your own way. College prepares almost no one for life in the workplace, and teaches you a lot of bad lessons and habits besides – in liberal arts, the ever-expanding roster of overly specialized classes means you’ll rarely get anything like a cohesive educational experience and will often end up learning very little in the long run; through grade inflation college devalues excellence and teaches sloth; through subtly (or not so subtly) cultivating a party culture it devalues restraint and temperance and builds habits of overindulgence and hedonism; by glorifying hookup culture it cultivates a notion that relations between men and women are transactional and transitory. These habits of heart and mind then follow you into your young adult life. Some people avoid them, and many overcome them in time, but I see so many young people at my company that bring college culture into the workplace with them, and it’s sad. When I was a supervisor there, it was eye opening how many people would try to get away with things, from trying to expense inappropriate things to just plain not trying at their jobs. It’s like they think they’re still in school, and they’ll just move on in a few years and nothing that they do matters in the long run, but nothing could be farther from the truth. This is your life. Everything you do in it matters.
This is what rampant individualism has done to my generation. As a group we’re lost and directionless, because we were told to just do what makes us happy. Only no one tried to teach us about what really matters, let alone how to find out for ourselves, so instead we took our lessons about what we should want in life from popular culture, and isn’t that just a lovely place to get your values from. At such a young age, you don’t truly know what makes you happy. You’ve got half-formed ideas and overly idealistic notions of how things really work, but it takes time and maturity to really understand what makes a good life. In the meantime, you’ll try things and often fail, and sometimes become disillusioned, because all the movies and TV shows are wrong; people don’t always get a happy ending, life’s unfair more often than not, and all the crap you see in ads and music and pop culture is a lot of smoke and mirrors. It will fill up your soul while leaving it empty of true joy.
Our parents thought they were freeing us when they embraced hyper individualism and raised us to be “true to ourselves,” whatever that means. Instead they were shackling us to our own desires. In being absolutely freed to do as we pleased, we instead became slaves, to consumerism and sex and hedonism.
If I have a point after this long and rambling post, it’s this: Young people are overwhelmingly too young to know what’s good for them, and most of them could benefit from being told as much in no uncertain terms. Parents, you may think you’re doing your children a favor by leaving them to find their own way in this world, but trust me, they need more help than you think. If you haven’t done so before, consider talking to them about the big questions – the nature of happiness, and human relationships, the joy of family, and how life passes by so much faster than they could believe, because I promise you, they have questions and they don’t yet have the wisdom and experience to have arrived at their own conclusions. They’re filled with uncertainty and they secretly crave more direction. You can save them time and heartache by prompting them and helping them to think through these questions. I wish someone had done that for me, and then maybe I wouldn’t have wasted as much time as I did.