Solving The Millennial Manchild Mystery
As article after article jabs a finger at yet another area in which our young men are under-performing, here are the five, chronological steps to understanding why millennial males are failing to rise to the challenges posed by modern life, and how you can help your YMIN (Young Man In Need). Accused of laziness, selfishness, narcissism, uselessness, and a lack of inspiration, YMINs are repeatedly demonised, misunderstood and are in real danger of being left behind.
I offer no expertise, factual knowledge or experience other than the proliferation of underemployed, rudderless YMIN I know and dearly love. Without further ado, take my hand, and come with me on a journey through the YMIN’s subconscious, starting from his beginnings as a fresh-faced, bright-eyed young boy…
1. Girls are taught to woman up, while boys enjoy prolonged foetus status
Our first natural role models are inevitably our parents, yet many, if not most, of the millennials I know grew up in single-parent homes, and a high proportion of them with completely absent birth fathers. Although they pay the price for this later in life in the form of romantic landscapes littered with detrimental, paternalistic partners, many of today’s young women were raised by decidedly capable mothers, a generation of older women hindered by the rampant Everyday Sexism of the eighties and nineties who nevertheless managed to work full-time, handle childcare alone, and suffer through the emotional and material loss of their partner while attempting to hold their heads high under the weight off the pariah-inducing label of Single Mother.
The Divorce Generation boys developed unprecedented respect for their mothers and thus women as a result, yet were still lacking a tangible father figure to emulate. Their sisters, however, subconsciously soaked up their own clear idea of what they would need to do to become women: they would need to work, they would need to further their education, they would need to explore, and first and foremost, they would need to be capable.
The women who raised us were no shrinking violets, and the generation of young women they produced are no different. One positive outcome of this is that their Divorce Generation boys have grown up to seek similarly ballsy women for themselves. Having been through the wringer and back, the Single Parent generation of mothers made it a point to push their daughters and to hold them to exacting standards. You will help with the housework, you will succeed at school, you will stand on your own two feet. The formula was one part wanting us to achieve higher than they did, and one part arming us for the hardship and disappointments they themselves faced. They knew what it was like to be pennilessly, mannlessly struggling to make ends meet, move house, and care for children. Their 1950’s mothers hadn’t primed them for the brave new world of emancipation. They saw it as their duty to equip us for what life may throw our way, urging us to develop grit and to not ever expect an easy ride. “I tell you, there has never, and I mean never, been a man around when I’ve needed one,” one woman in her fifties explained to me.
Our upbringing, then, was a training ground for us potentially experiencing the same. One man, when I asked why many YMIN today don’t know how to build or fix things in the home, explained that his son “had never shown any interest in learning” and so had never been taught how to do in the same way that generations of men that came before would have. I don’t remember ever having shown an interest in cooking or cleaning, yet somehow traditional female skills were still passed on to me, where many male skills were abandoned.
Mothers are traditionally softer with their boys than their girls, taking the gentle approach that has stereotypically characterised the mother-son relationship since the dawning of time, from Italian Mammas to Irish Mammies. This softly-softly approach is possibly down to the ephemeral nature of the bond: girls tend to stick around being daughters, whereas sons tend to adopt their in-laws. It might also be explained by the maternal awareness that this is a man’s world, still. They know their boys will be fine — or so they once thought.
Key phrase to help your YMIN aged 11: “When you’ve finished hoovering, I need you to come and help me put this shelf up.”
2. Men have done it all before, anyway
We’ve looked at our parents as role models. But there are plenty of young men born into loving, dual-parented households who still seem to be struggling. There is one significant way in which their experience differs from that of their female counterparts, and that is in the overwhelming examples and role models from which to choose. Young men today seem to aspire to a kind of Kerouac/Hemingway/Lou Reed mash-up, precisely because Kerouac, Hemingway and Lou Reed have already existed.
So many past men, living so many different lives, all under the spotlight, and in much, much greater numbers than women: from travelling musicians to debauched artists, from soldiers saving lives to prolific statesmen, from rock ’n’ roll gods to seafarers and explorers, from those who gave it all up to wander the road as free spirits, to those who grabbed capitalism by the balls and deep-throated their way to materialistic excesses, from those born lucky to those who dragged themselves kicking and screaming out of their childhood gutters: all walks of life are accounted for, all possibilities examined, all successes achieved.
Faced with all of these illustrations of male success, there is no allowance for young men today in the way that there is with women, no room for trial and error, no tentative exploring of new realms outside of science, no new charting or mapping. Simply the opportunity to retread well-worn paths, probably with less class and style. Why bother?
Key phrase to help your YMIN aged 16: “Who cares if it’s been done before? YOU haven’t done it before. And the world’s full of artists and heroes we never hear of. There’s no reason you won’t be one of them .”
3) Technology ruins everything
To compound this newfound sense of worthlessness and unoriginality, technology now dominates every corner of our lives, offering up juicy morsels of achievement on a slick, touchscreen platter.
As has been explored at length, the manicured photographs of how others live, piped into our systems via the gushing feed tube of our smart phones, undoubtedly has a depressive effect in forcing us to confront our own shortcomings under the harsh, unforgiving light of others’ successes. But technology also taught us that anybody could be a star, a hit, a Somebody. Gone are the days when you might have been scouted in the street as a model, or picked up in a pub gig for a record deal. Gone, too, are the days when you might have mournfully stroked at your guitar or scribbled off a tear-sodden Post-It poem from the confines of your adolescent bedroom. Now, simply upload your shit and wait to get famous.
Combined with the aforementioned over-supply of inspiring role models, the instant-fame machine of the internet intensifies a sense of worthlessness. Any music, writing or art you may produce really ought to be uploaded and spread out for the world to Like or Dislike. Now, not only has Kerouac already been and done what you wanted to be and do, but his heir has most certainly already been plucked from the bowels of the blogging world and catapulted to instant online fame. You haven’t. Clearly, you were never a Kerouac anyway.
Depressing, isn’t it?
What was once confined to a Moleskine notebook is now left to dangle in the cold, unresponsive embryo of the internet, waiting to be midwifed into the big wide world. Each new Unviewed stat exacerbates the growing sense that your thoughts, feelings and ideas are all fundamentally unimportant, uninteresting, and unworthy. Young men feel this more acutely, due to the sheer number of Great Men who came before them, and because many, still, remain emotionally and verbally constipated compared to their female peers. In other words, young women don’t feel the pressure, and if they do, they write a diary or talk it over at repeated length with a friend.
The world has been shrinking for awhile now, and there are no longer any secret corners or hidden regions of our planet. What once would have been the ultimate male area of excellence (striking out and forging your own path through wild, off-grid lands) is now the subject of lengthy documentation. Everywhere has been mapped, written about and publicly experienced.
Finally, having come of age in this increasingly globalised, full-frontal world, young men are exposed to the variety of different interests and activities enjoyed by their peers. Where once upon a time the average young man would have gone to work, visited the pub, played football at the weekend and taken a holiday once or twice a year at most, a rise in cheap products and services, an increase in disposable income and the huge visibility engendered by the internet have meant that many of their peers play multiple instruments, speak at least one foreign language well, are politically active, keep a blog, jaunt off for weekend trips to obscure European towns and take ‘sustainable and responsible’ ‘working trips’ every so often to build villages, help rear organic fish in a decimated part of the world, and other such adventures — and all very visibly, displayed for 24/7 perusal.
Young women, on the other hand, still enjoy the remains of the ego-protecting shield of casual sexism: as long as a woman isn’t too dim, and as long as she’s fairly attractive, nothing more will be asked of her, she need have no particular talents or skills other than the ability to laugh easily, look her best and make for enjoyable company. Having skills or talent is a much-appreciated bonus, of course. But a woman’s raison d’etre is analysed much less closely than that of her male peers. We may not believe or want to believe this to be so, but I have repeatedly observed this to be the case, although some men and women may not even realise that this mechanism is at play. A shame, perhaps, but for now we can enjoy the benefits of these double standards: nothing in particular is expected of us, and we are not required to meet the high, well-rounded standards demanded of young men.
Key phrase to help your YMIN aged 21: “There’s always going to be someone better looking, more accomplished, funnier and generally a better human being than you. Turn your phone off and get over it.”
4) Real men do women’s work
Once upon a time, our young men would have taken one of two well-defined paths, becoming either middle-class office bods or working-class beasts of burden. As the gap between working class and middle class is whittled down, traditional blue collar jobs are evaporating, with little to no manufacturing existing in many of Britain’s regions, and tradesmen being replaced by imported labour to produce more for less.
Working class men are thus forced to either go on the dole, or embrace employment traditionally seen as ‘women’s work’: manning tills, entering data, answering phones and waiting tables. The biological element of being a man has disappeared. No longer exercising their muscles, no longer sweating, no longer feeling the adrenaline of physical labour or the camaraderie that working as part of a building crew might inspire, the young men spend their working days handling calls in a customer service centre before sadly pulling on their jackets and bussing home to their publess suburbs.
This loss of physical work is placed in stark contrast against traditional ideas of masculinity, the now repressed male instinct to make use of their bodies, and impacts emotionally, too. The sentimental, subconscious value of ‘making’ (from manufacturing parts to fixing on railroads, working the docks or laying bricks) can never be replaced by the intangible, non-productivity of technology-based work.
In other words, young men have gone from being the pillars and cores of their communities responsible for physically building, making, mending and producing, to non-essential workers whose output cannot be seen or measured, replaceable by women if necessary. Jobs are no longer passed down from father to son, and even if they could get manual labour jobs, they wouldn’t necessarily want to take them up. As we saw earlier, now that everybody is a unique mind with something important to say, write, sing or make, why lower yourself to the role of mere navvy when you could wait for something better, something more befitting of your talents and skills, to come up?
Their middle-class brethren were never expected to take up manual labour (although many men in their forties, fifties and sixties appear to have set off for adventures in the far-flung corners of the world before, during or after university, picking up physical work as they went), but they were expected to follow in their fathers’ footsteps in forging a corporate career.
Now, in a world where hipsterisation is the norm and ‘Rejecting The Man’ rife, this path begins to look less and less appealing. Imbued with a sense that they are somehow eluding the dull, obedient, square-shaped funnel of an 8-to-6 existence, the middle-class young men reject the route taken by their predecessors, retreating instead into a world of unemployment or underemployment in ‘sexy’ menial work, such as in bars, coffee shops, pubs or couriering. Their primary aim is to survive through work that has some semblance of cachet, while freeing up enough time for them to pursue the cerebral or artistic activities that garner admiration from their peers. Call centre work, plastering or data entry don’t quite cut it, but serving up pints of craft ales two afternoons a week while waiting to become a digital entrepreneur just might.
Why the rejection of the corporate ladder? It’s a decidedly conformist attitude, in light of the western world’s newfound appreciation for all things sustainable and fair trade. The world is moving in the direction of citizens wages and non-physical offices, and today’s middle-class young men expect to be at the front of the queue when the revolution comes. They look at the corporate lifestyle, the steady pay and home life, and believe it to stand for everything they hate: following orders, muffling individuality and perpetuating the status quo, failing to realise that in their attempts to tap into the essence of their individuality, they lose any individuality whatsoever, subscribing instead to the Young Man’s Blueprint of today. Arguably, the way to truly stand apart would be to abandon modern convenience for the life of a tramp, or to learn a trade and disappear to Australia or America to seek their fortunes in a refreshingly simple and archaic manner.
Young men believe themselves above the tethers of work ethic and structured life, actively looking down on those they perceive to be fully-functioning cogs in the system, yet inevitably relying on their ‘cog’ loved ones for food and shelter, ‘cog’ tax-payers for benefits and ‘cog’ companies for their technology and transport. While disowning the system and seeking to wash their hands of any involvement in it, they are nevertheless reliant on it for survival, and this lies at the crux of young men’s malaise and underpinning depression.
Key phrase to help your YMIN aged 27: “ I think you should retrain, learn a trade to rediscover your own usefulness, emigrate to see a bit of the world and realise that none of it, really, matters.”
5) “You are nobody, you hear me? NOBODY!!!111”
The final key to unlocking the reasons behind the YMIN discomfort is a fairly simple one, applying to young white men exclusively, and has been documented in detail, so I won’t linger on it. Suffice to say that as our societies embrace identity politics with ever more fervour, young white men, burdened by accusations of White Privilege, firmly booted into place by their female counterparts, and demonised to varying degrees by the media, no longer have a group identity to call their own.
The demise of the Church’s stronghold over our communities removed religion as common ground. The technological revolution sparked the end of work that once the whole community would have been involved in, and the end of a sense of history and belonging to one’s community, as jobs traditionally passed from uncle to nephew, father to son, disappeared.
Young white men find any longing for group identity carries very negative connotations indeed. While women rally behind the banner of feminism, and various minority groups join forces for support, young white men are free to either join the EDL or embrace the ‘pro-male’ groups that have inevitably popped up, the main focus of which seems to be gaining more paternity rights — an unattractive prospect for the young, Divorce Generation men.
How to help your YMIN aged 30: “You are not alone and you aren’t a bad, failed person. Feel free to give me a call if you want to bitch about life.”
Fixing the paradox…
The curious thing about the young men’s crisis we’re seeing today is a massive conflict between feelings of under-confidence and over-confidence: over-confident in their strident belief that as sharp minds and forward-thinking members of society, regular, mundane employment is not for them, yet under-confident due to their inherent understanding that they are existing in and surviving off the same system they refuse to help oil. A strange paradox thus begins to form in the gap between the two.
Their under-confidence is exacerbated by a deeply rooted belief that even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t be good enough. Left for so long without using their bodies on a daily basis, their faith in their physical strength should they wish to take up manual labour is non-existent: as we saw at the beginning of this article, in this pro-digital age, many were never taught how to perform basic DIY by their fathers. Faced with the seemingly unstoppable rise of women in academia and the white collar world, their faith in the depth of their ambitions falters. How might a young man, crippled by unattainable role models and exemplary peers as well as the erosion of his traditional labour and roles, compete with a young woman with no face to lose and no pre-ordained path to take?
It’s not all bad news, though. These YMIN seem to have more soft skills than their forefathers, a broader range of interests, a greater sensitivity to the plights of others, a much, much deeper appreciation and respect for women than many of the men who came before them, with a far higher level of equality present in their relationships.
We may have strewn our young men up to the pyre for social progress, and as we plough on to create a fairer world whilst simultaneously dealing with the pressures of fast-growing technology, they may serve as the necessary collateral damage in this painful moulting process. To that we can only say ‘onwards and upwards’ — but let’s make sure we take everyone with us.
Disclaimer: Yes, this article is based on generalisations, yes, we all know young men for whom this is not applicable, yes, women have their own special struggles, yes, everyone is a unique individual and this article is not reflective of the entire male species, yes I have chosen to use broad categorisations to reflect on a broad social phenomenon.