Sunday, March 06, 2011

Boyz II Slightly Older Boyz

I just now listened to an NPR interview with Kay Hymowitz, and some clarification was provided. First, this for Britta, apparently in her book Hymowitz does go into detail on the economic factors that lead 20-something men to stay single. Next, someone on the podcast mentioned that way back when, military service was the way boys became men. And I think this is key - not military service specifically, but the fact that the only way to go from girl to woman used to be by marrying, whereas men have always had a wider range of options, such that a male of a certain age was not considered a "boy" if single, whereas a woman of equivalent age was still a "girl."

Next, the real clarification - or source of further confusion? - in terms of age: a woman called into the show to say she's 23, likes to go out and have fun, but is disappointed that when partying all night long, the guys her own age she meets are not looking to settle down. This to me was a perfect, can't-make-these-things-up example of how gendered expectations play into all of this. Here we have a 23-year-old woman clearly enjoying being 23, in no rush to be 24 let alone 30, who nevertheless feels like she has to ask why there are no good men... at the parties and concerts (not classical, one assumes) she's attending every night of the week.

Hymowitz suggests that to find a good man, the young woman consider older men, noting that historically this has been how things tend to play out. Hymowitz then alludes to the fact that perhaps men have always matured more slowly than women, and also more-than-alludes (not here, I think, but at other points in the interview) to the fact that women have limited fertile years to contend with. At which point I'm wondering why we're supposed to be surprised that 20-something men today are not hearing the tick of their own biological clocks. And why there's a problem - if, as Hymowitz admits, men will eventually want to settle down, the women who also want to do so at 23 have their pick of these dudes, while those who don't can party on with their peers, meeting men they may one day start a family with, but it won't be at 23-and-a-half.

The caller responds, basically, that older guys have cooties. OK, not quite, but she said she likes that guys her own age are fun and not focused on their careers, seemingly defining "fun" as "not focused on one's career." At this point, I'm wondering what, exactly, we're supposed to think the caller means when she says that men her own age are too immature for her, relationship-wise. Is the issue that she wants three-week flings rather than one-night-stands? If she were actually interested in settling down, starting a family, or even a long-term commitment, she wouldn't get the creeps when a man makes reference to having a steady job. Which as good as confirmed my hypothesis that the caller felt she had to repeat a cliché about the difficulty of finding good men, while at the same time being altogether content with her current situation.

I was left thinking... pretty much what I'd thought before, which is that the window-of-opportunity is the real problem. This particular caller seemed to be genuinely enjoying being 23 more than most enjoy being any age. But in general, a woman that age is being told both that she's too young to settle down and that the age at which it's too late is around the corner. The problem is that there are these two fairly rigid ideas women have about which age group they're in, whereas men are allowed a more gradual transition from youth to maturity. And... I may have more thoughts later, but this is the update for now.


Withywindle said...

And your thoughts on the slightly underreported demographic of younger man-older woman couples?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I think, if you're a 23-year-old woman looking to settle down - as in marriage and children shortly thereafter - then you'd be well-advised not to rule out 40-year-old men. Some, of course, will be interested in a 23-year-old woman precisely because they don't want commitment and women closer to their own age do, but others will be more than ready because they've already bored of playing the field, or (the cynical approach) will be so grateful for the attention of a woman that young that they'll commit. I'd also suggest that such a woman not rule out men her own age, some of whom will want precisely what she does, or be so taken with her that they'll provide what she wants.

That said, I think we need to be clear that 23-year-old women who are college-educated and career-oriented are not generally interested in starting a family at 23. Where Hymowitz and Regnerus confuse me is in their assumption that college-student or recent-college-grad women are ready for that level of commitment, and that it's men who are holding them back from the lives they seek. So I don't think that as a rule, 23-year-old women need to seek out older men for anything in particular.

Withywindle said...

Just to repeat -- your thoughts on couples where the man is younger than the woman?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Ah - why it's not good to blog-comment on Sunday pre-nap. Consider the above, then, an extension to the post itself, since it obviously fails as a response to your respons!

My thoughts on those... are that I doubt if they're especially common these days, especially if we're still talking about recent-college-grad-age women. If the age difference is slight, it's same-age territory. But I don't think 20-something women - or men for that matter - have too many options in terms of younger partners, for obvious reasons. Is you question, then, about the phenomenon of 20-something men with 40-and-up women? If so, what I know about this is that it's been celebrated in pop culture as the "cougar" moment, but I'm not sure it's much of a phenomenon in real life, or terribly interesting to moralists. If a young man is opting for an older woman so as to avoid a serious relationship/having kids, that would probably fall into the same category, for a moralist, as video-games and hook-ups with same-age women.

Withywindle said...

I suppose I was thinking of women a few years older than the men, more than one year, shall we say, but not twenty. I think it would indicate that there are younger men interested in long-term coupledom, responsibilities, etc.--but some of them have been snapped up by slightly older women, thus increasing the perceived scarcity by slightly younger women. It also indicates that the competition between younger and older men for young women has some echo in a competition among younger and older women for younger men--which would complicate the various narratives. (Note to self: Never use the phrase "complicate the various narratives.") There are then interesting questions, as to whether said older women are 1) finding their true loves; 2) snapping up good men before they are quite old enough to known their own true value on the coupledom market; 3) accepting inferior younger men, physically or socially, as the price of getting coupled; 4) looking for "good provider" guys when younger women (including their own younger selves) were looking for "Saturday Night" guys; 5) in some cases getting taken for a ride by said younger guys, possibly knowing the risks that this will happen; 6) some complicated combination. I don't have an overwhelming sense of how common such couples are, but I think "non-trivial, and greater than commonly perceived" covers the territory. And I do think it's interesting to consider the phenomenon in light of the various issues you've been discussing.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"It also indicates that the competition between younger and older men for young women has some echo in a competition among younger and older women for younger men--which would complicate the various narratives."

This is interesting, and a fine use of "complicate the various narratives" - sometimes that kind of language is the best way to convey a thought, and you've hit upon one of those times.

One possibility you don't mention, which is reasonable given that you're discussing what's in it for the older woman, is that a certain number of younger men are interested in settling down, and are not finding women their own age who are as well. There are obviously some young women who are, but not many, and they already have their pick of 40-year-old dudes.

Another, that does relate to what the women get out of it, is that youth is viewed as beauty in men and women alike, and that only now do women have a chance to seek out beauty (as the main trait, or one main trait) in a partner. Whereas once, beautiful young men were snapped up only by older and more powerful gay men, heterosexual women are now able to play that game. The whole 'women get wrinkles, men get distinguished-looking' myth falls apart, perhaps, once there are enough women with enough income of their own to choose a man based on his being a nice enough guy who looks amazing.

Withywindle said...

I'm going to say that the Mature Lady's Fancy Boy isn't just -- or even primarily -- a recent innovation.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

It's not new, but what is is the possibility that the hot young dude is not a secret affair, but an out-in-the-open boyfriend or husband.