This was buried (and poorly articulated, alas) in a recent post, but I will put it front and center: was there ever a time, within Western modernity, other than (what I understand of) the 1950s, outside of any extreme-for-its-time religious sect, when 20-something men were expected to be married with kids? I'm not asking whether men at that age were ever settled down, or whether any of the major religions technically gives its OK to the kind of sex had by bachelors. My question is whether it was ever expected of men, whether social tsk-tskers (again, religious authorities, who tend to aim beyond what's really expected, aside) were aghast that a 35-year-old man might only now be thinking of settling down, a past of premarital exploits behind him.
I ask this because today's secular-ish moralists seem amazed at how immature 20-something men are, how useless they are to 20-something women. I'm wondering whether there was ever a time (see caveats above) when 20-something men were expected to be of use to settling-down-oriented 20-something women. Wasn't this considered 30-and-up men's responsibility?
Meanwhile, if anything - and forgive me the same imprecision re: time and place as those I'm responding to - it could be that what's new is that 20-something women are expected to be interested in 20-something men. Whereas once, a 21-year-old would be matched with a 40-year-old, her presumed partners are now 21-year-old men. This, and not the maturity of 20-something men, may be the difference we're seeing.
The responsibility for this shift - assuming there's been a shift, and perhaps when I'm less preoccupied by far more precise details of 19th C marriage patterns I'll look into this in more detail - would seemingly lie in everything from reliable birth control (not every partner or even relationship needs to be about supporting children) to the fact that a great number of activities (college student, lawyer) are not divided along gender lines. Women have far more choice than in the past about who to pick or pursue, and for what kind of relationship. And - shock of shocks - despite refrains about graying men being 'distinguished', 20-something women find 20-something men attractive. In other words, it's not that 20-something women are and always have been more mature than 20-something men. It's that it's always been more appealing to choose who to be with and when and under what circumstances, and women now have the option of doing what men always have. (If it weren't for declining fertility with age, there'd be no compelling reason for women to want to settle down at any particular point. But fertility doesn't stop at 22...) Anyway, if what 20-something women wanted was to snag men ready to settle down, they'd be after older men, who would likely oblige. That they're not suggests that settling down is not their priority. Which is why this bit of Mark "Remember Him?" Regnerus's Slate piece was so baffling:
Jill, a 20-year-old college student from Texas, is one of the many young women my colleagues and I interviewed who finds herself confronting the sexual market's realities. Startlingly attractive and an all-star in all ways, she patiently endures her boyfriend's hemming and hawing about their future. If she were operating within a collegiate sexual economy that wasn't oversupplied with women, men would compete for her and she would easily secure the long-term commitment she says she wants. Meanwhile, Julia, a 21-year-old from Arizona who's been in a sexual relationship for two years, is frustrated by her boyfriend's wish to "enjoy the moment and not worry about the future." Michelle, a 20-year-old from Colorado, said she is in the same boat: "I had an ex-boyfriend of mine who said that, um, he didn't know if he was ever going to get married because, he said, there's always going to be someone better."Perhaps there are regional particularities here that I'm missing, but isn't it usual for traditional-age college students of both sexes to assume that the relationship they happen to be in is not with their future spouse? Isn't it possible that "Jill" happens to be more interested in her current boyfriend than vice versa, and that this - rather than something gender-specific - is the issue, and that Jill's optimal scenario if the boy were more interested would be, I don't know, a change in Facebook status to "In a Relationship," not anything more official? (And, things being subjective, how exactly can Regnerus know how appealing Jill would be in some hypothetical situation other than the one she's in? Is he qualified not only to assess Young People Today, but also their objective hotness?) Isn't it for the best that 20-year-olds of both sexes who are unsure about their current partners make that known and move on, rather than forcing a commitment with the first person with whom there's even slightly sustained mutual attraction? And - this one for "Michelle" - are we really supposed to take seriously the declaration of a 20-year-old's ex-boyfriend, who could well have been 17 when saying this, that he's not sure he'll ever want to marry?
I have said before and will say again that I think if two 20-year-olds have found each other and wish to look no further - and remember, at 20 someone could already have been in a few other serious relationships - then there shouldn't be pressure on them to see what else is out there. So if that's what's happening, if these young men have been told by society to leave perfectly happy relationships - and I suspect that is what happens some of the time, with male and female dumpers - that's a problem. Regnerus, however, implies that these boyfriends and ex-boyfriends really are ambivalent, really are ready to move on. In which case, they - and their female equivalents - should reject their current partners, even if, horror of horrors, it prevents some dumpees from marrying their college sweethearts. At any rate, this is the problem with "20s" as a concept, the conflation of ages at which settling down makes sense for many, and at which it makes sense for very, very few.