(Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America. Hymowitz is the author of Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys (2011), Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age (2006), and Liberation’s Children: Parents and Kids in a Postmodern Age (2004), among others. She has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, New York Newsday, Public Interest, The Wilson Quarterly, and Commentary. Her next book, coming out in 2017 is called The New Brooklyn: What it Takes to Bring a City Back.)
Laura Perrins: I find myself reading American publications for well researched socially conservative arguments on public policy. I have read all your books. Your work on marriage is particularly persuasive. It is the case that inequality in both the US and the UK is only going to worsen now that marriage is virtually non-existent in lower socio-economic groups.
Is there any significant reform that can turn things around?
Kay Hymowitz: I know this will sound like a nothing answer, but after lecturing about the relationship of family breakdown to all sorts of individual and social ills to various groups for over a decade now, I’m convinced that no reform is possible when there is so little conviction about the depth of the problem. Norms depend on public consensus, something we don’t have.
There are some lefty holdouts who don’t believe a stable family life including a father is a norm worth reinforcing but they are rare. Most people I talk to shake their heads in agreement but don’t see it as collective action problem that involves them. They really don’t want to talk about it.
There is also a generational problem. Kids of my children’s generation are wedded – pun intended – to the ideal of family diversity and nonjudgmentalism. They may not want to be a single parent or to be distant from their own fathers but they are entirely unwilling to consider the idea that norms need people to believe and encourage them.
In fairness to the half-hearted, these conversations are hard to have. No one wants to hear their own parents or friends or other relatives described as making bad choices, especially when in so many cases the options they faced were limited. We need to develop a language that won’t sound stigmatising.
LP: You received a huge amount of push-back for your book – Manning Up – perhaps your least socially conservative book. And you gave young men a good going over here. But the truth is, and you do in fairness explore it later, that if young men are in extended adolescence, it is because young women permit it. Women shape society for good or for ill – men respond. If they respond by acting like a 15-year-olds we have to ask ourselves why? Often women do not want to commit either, as it interferes with their career plans?
KH: I Agreed. If I could rewrite Manning Up, I would tone down what some people saw as male-bashing. Men and women are both complicit in the new mating norms. But it is asking a lot to expect a 16 or even 21 or 24-year-old to remake the social world as its been given to them. They know that (like young people always) they are filled with sexual desire and that the culture expects them to be able to act on that. That’s ok, but within what framework? How are these sexual beings supposed to treat each other? And what’s the long game, that is, how do you have sexual relationships that fit within a broader understanding of life’s goods? Can a young person in the throes of loneliness or desire and within a broader cultural context pushing sexual self-expression make these decisions for themselves?
LP: Can we turn around the hook-up culture? Looking, at your piece here, it really is a war zone out there for young men and women? Do you think they will end up with happy marriages, or is this college experience going to produce seriously emotionally damaged adults?
KH: I Since I wrote Manning Up, I’ve become a little more optimistic about the romantic prospects of our highly educated hooker uppers. That’s mostly because I’ve seen so many of them come out of the scene pretty well in the end . By their later twenties and early thirties most of them seem to have put it behind them and moved on to marriage and children.
That said, there is a significant population of miserable 30-somethings – women mostly – who lost in the game of musical hook ups. These are frequently really impressive women – attractive, smart, accomplished, thoughtful – but because they have a biological clock and men can have an ever renewing source of young female players, they lost out. They probably didn’t realise – because no one was willing to tell them – how high the stakes of the hook up culture could be. My heart breaks for them.
LP: You end one of your City Journal pieces thus, “Young men especially need a culture that can help them define worthy aspirations. Adults don’t emerge. They’re made.” You explore this in detail in your book, Ready or Not. Can you explain for our readers what our anti-culture culture is and perhaps some recent examples?
KH: I We are living in such an individualist era. We’re reluctant to assert any notion of a worthy life for young people. We want them to figure it all out – love, sex, family, work – for themselves. The results are not all bad. Kids growing up in strong families in highly functioning communities are doing well enough in the long run. They seem to absorb the lesson of their parents’ lives by osmosis.
But less advantaged kids growing up in more chaotic homes and communities need more explicit guideposts, more structured guidance, in this momentous task of creating their lives. These kids are drifters. They drift into and out of school and work; they drift into relationships and parenthood and their own children are destined to do the same. Self agency, self-direction doesn’t come easily to human beings. You need a lot of support along the way and particularly because of family disruption (which is highly correlated with community disorder) – too many kids don’t have that.
LP: Turning to the election. Again in a City Journal piece you explore why family break up and fatherlessness is so damaging for young men. Although lack of a male role model is a factor, research shows that male role models who are not the birth fathers do not make much of an impact. Perhaps, despite valiant effort from his lone mother, a fatherless family tells the son – you are not really necessary. Donald Trump has a huge following among low-income young men. Many say it is because they lack jobs (which begs the question why) but as the National Review pointed out, these supporters refer to Trump as Daddy. Is this Daddy come home?
KH: That is such a fascinating phenomenon. There’s no question in my mind that for many supporters – male and female – Trump soothes the modern Daddy problem. He is the fantasy father, the confident protector, the man who refuses to apologise for being a man to a feminised elite. Yes, fatherlessness is a big force behind this longing, but then so is modern unease about masculinity and masculine virtues: strength, confidence, bravery, and the like.
The other background fact is the great economic upheaval of our day. I’m a great believer in the long-term benefits of innovation and “creative destruction;” But we have done a very poor job of modifying and adapting to the immense costs of this churning, globalised, technological era. The idea that there is someone who can bring back the old order – not to mention the coal and steel industries – is tremendously appealing. Nostalgia is a powerful human urge in the best of circumstances; in a time of rapid, mystifying change its pull is greater still.
Unfortunately Trump is the empty, blowhard father; he would be an almost comical figure if he didn’t threaten to become the most powerful man on earth. My boomer generation rebelled against the unselfconscious Great Generation dads who never questioned the old regime or their role in it. We went too far, I think. Now look what we’ve got: a cartoon, buffoon Daddy to save us from ourselves.
LP: Who will you vote for?
KH: At this time, I don’t plan to vote. However, if it looks like we’re headed towards a Trump presidency, I will probably pull the lever for Hillary as a defensive gesture. Bottom line: #NeverTrump.
(Image: Gage Skidmore)