It's no exaggeration to say that having large numbers of single young men and women living independently, while also having enough disposable income to avoid ever messing up their kitchens, is something entirely new in human experience. Yes, at other points in Western history young people have waited well into their 20s to marry, and yes, office girls and bachelor lawyers have been working and finding amusement in cities for more than a century. But their numbers and their money supply were always relatively small. Today's pre-adults are a different matter. They are a major demographic event.
- Kay Hymowitz
On first blush, Kay Hymowitz seems to be talking about the rise of the yuppie and its Brooklyn cousin, the hipster. (Is there a difference anymore?) This pack of pre-adults consists of youngish people, presumably educated, who spend the disposable income they might otherwise drop on diapers or a mortgage to do whatever suits them. In fact, though, she is ranting in the Wall Street Journal about young men who refuse to grow up. Untethered to a wife and children, these strays scrounge around dorm rooms, leaving only to export this way of life to their parents’ homes and eventually their own apartments, all while blithely ignoring demands to grow up. The portrayal of the shiftless young man has only grown more prominent in the grand sweep of recent history, from pitched battles over male irresponsibility on Jerry Springer to the rise of Judd Apatow’s empire. Writers turn a pretty penny dishing advice to frustrated women while Apatow rolls out one blockbuster after another about arrested development, portraying the childlike man as a lovable hero.
But where did this character come from? When did pop culture begin to promote the childless, free-spirited, self-indulgent adult as a cultural ideal? The dream of remaining young and unsullied by maturity is an old one, running from the lost innocence of creation myths through a long cultural tradition of imps, elves, and hobbits, all the way down to naïve Candide and Peter Pan, the lovable permanent child. But the more recent update is deeply tied to consumerism; its origins are largely male-oriented in nature, but it is far from a purely male phenomenon, despite what pundits in the grip of traditional notions about gender, marriage, and parenthood might suggest. The journey of the yuppie/hipster/slacker begins in Chicago, where Hugh Hefner founded Playboy in 1952. Long before the Playboy Mansion moved male fantasy out to the exurbs, Hefner situated his prototypical sophisticate in a hip urban bachelor pad.
The playboy of the 1950s was, in part, a reaction to the so-called domestication of the American male. Shoved into a “gray flannel suit” and boxed in a suburban ranch house world of cribs and Bundt cakes, middle class men yearned for a sense of freedom from the prosaic concerns of child-rearing and breadwinning, especially when their bread was won in a sterile corporate office in the city or a suburban office park. Hugh Hefner’s keen insight was to channel the psychic poverty of suburban manhood into a vision of suave, masculine, uninhibited freedom, defined by discerning taste and consumption of the better things in life – sophisticated drinks, jazz, the hip urban bachelor pad. As historian Elizabeth Fraterrigo has argued, the lifestyle promoted in Playboy was a sort of “answer to suburbia.” At the same time as the magazine promoted the pursuit of individual desires and redeemed the city as a place to live amid the rush to the suburbs, it also set up a sort of mirror image of male domesticity. Interior decorating might seem like a feminine domain in the suburbs, but Playboy actually recast the same activity in acceptably masculine terms. The sophisticated bachelor would seek to emulate Hefner by decking out his apartment in the sleek, high-tech, modernist style depicted in the magazine’s pages. Gone were colors, soft edges, floral prints, and in their place one found “a neutral palette and striking textural contrasts from its cork tile floor, to the stone fireplace heath, to an exposed brick wall” – a hallmark of today’s hip “loft” living, and a fine place for “a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex,” as Playboy said in its first issue.
Clearly, Hefner and his writers were laying out the contours of the single or childless life that many educated, affluent people are embracing in the twenty-first century. The possibility of pursuing one’s discerning consumer taste without responsibility to children or a broader community was pioneered as a fantasy for the men who read Playboy, yet it has mutated into a choice available to anyone who wants to live in a city, dine on Burmese-Mexican fusion, and invite a friend or lover over to discuss The Wire over drinks. (Note the exposed brick in the background.) Once the province of men, the ideal of affluent individualism has been at least partly translated into an option open to women through the sitcom alchemy of Seinfeld and Sex and the City.
Yet this Eden of adulthood without domesticity continues to have a peculiarly male dimension to it, which suggests a deeper tie to the original Playboy idea of unfettered selfishness. In a recent diatribe against prolonged adolescence in men, Kay Hymowitz cited Playboy as the proving ground for a “refusal” of responsibility. “The arrival of Playboy in the 1950s seemed like the ultimate protest against male domestication; think of the refusal implied by the magazine's title alone,” Hymowitz recently said in the Wall Street Journal. “In his disregard for domestic life, the playboy was prologue for today's pre-adult male. Unlike the playboy with his jazz and art-filled pad, however, our boy rebel is a creature of the animal house.” The philosopher-quoting, gin-guzzling bachelor of the 1950s had unwittingly fathered the video-game-addicted schlubs who refuse to grow up in movies like Knocked-Up and Pineapple Express.
In search of adulthood
Growing up, it seems, means getting married and having children – along with, presumably, holding down a mortgage and a job. Without this marker of adulthood, the man drifts further from view and only the manchild remains. Curiously, Hymowitz claims that the transition to adulthood was traditionally clearer for women than men, and has only gotten murkier for the guys in recent years. “It’s been an almost universal rule of civilization that girls became women simply by reaching physical maturity, but boys had to pass a test,” she writes. (Anthropologists would likely quibble with so broad a claim.) “They needed to demonstrate courage, physical maturity, or mastery of the necessary skills.” This argument seems deeply wedded to long-standing claims that men in modern society have had to compensate for the loss of their role as guarantors of physical security (fighting, shooting, performing manual labor) by indulging in a wide array of macho substitutes: playing with guns, buying an SUV, an undue obsession with gadgets and lawncare. Such pop psychological arguments have grown old and stale without losing their ability to hold sway over social critics (as well as the marketers and publishers who have so fiendishly exploited perceptions of male inadequacy).