The rise of the basement boys
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 25 October 2008)

The hardest work we ever do, a psychiatrist said to me long ago, is transforming ourselves from children into parents. Nothing else you wish for, nothing else you accomplish, will require such detailed, intimate, frustrating labour over so many years. Nobody ever gets it quite right, of course, and some people get it tragically wrong, but everyone who wants a place in the chain of humanity must go through this painful, complicated process.

That psychiatrist's point comes back to me often in connection with subjects that range from the grand and world-historical, such as the progress of civilization, to the simple and poetic, such as the exquisite pleasure of watching one's child or grandchild dashing through the stages of growth. Not everyone, of course, sets out willingly on this parental journey and some don't attempt it at all. In fact, one of the most striking social developments of this era is the appearance of many men (women are a separate story) who have no interest in assuming this considerable burden.

They react with boredom and fear to the concept of maturity -- the word itself has taken on an antique quality. Once it was routine for restless young people to yearn for the status of adults. Many still do, but others are apparently anxious to make adolescence a permanent way of life. Developmental psychologists have invented a term, "emerging adulthood," which runs from 18 to 25 and beyond.

We have now reached the point where immaturity, no matter how long it lasts, doesn't feel shameful. Young men who happily live with their parents far into their twenties (sometimes called "basement boys") are now the frequent subject of worried conversations among the middle-aged. Somehow, we have produced an army of grown men who are happy to live "at home," where food, room and laundry are free or cheap. The 2006 film Failure to Launch concerns a thirty-something slacker (Matthew McConaughey) whose parents are so desperate to be rid of him that they set him up with a delightful young woman (Sarah Jessica Parker) who will, they pray, get him off their premises. Failure to Launch is a comedy but my guess is that many parents who watched it didn't see the joke.

We also find among us certain men who have left home and become parents but somehow failed to understand that adulthood requires a level of restraint. These are the drivers whose road rage reaches scandalous proportions and the hockey dads who get so hysterically involved in the games their boys play that they turn viciously on coaches and referees.

And while everyone seems to agree that the banks are responsible for the world-shaking subprime scandal, think how many young people involved themselves with impossible, nothing-down mortgages, contracts they could only have signed without adult-level diligence.

Gary Cross, a cultural historian at Penn State University, tries to find ways of thinking about this subject in a useful book, Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity (Columbia University Press), published last month. He argues that our age has systematically rejected old models of maturity (such as Victorian patriarchy) without embracing new ones.

This has led to the rise of the boyman, now a central character in North American culture -- see, for instance, the many movies of Adam Sandler. He's made a career (Roger Ebert noted) of performing characters who are as nice as needy puppies but conceal a masked hostility to society, a passive-aggressive gift for offending others while being ingratiating. To put it another way, since the 1970s we have replaced Cary Grant with Hugh Grant. Cary's career carried him up to mature adult parts. Hugh, 48 this autumn, still looks and acts like a sheepish kid.

The culture of the boy-man, Cross says, is less a transition from adulthood than an implicit decision to live as a teenager forever. "The boyman stands on the treadmill of endless novelty and passively looks for 'hits' of pleasure while the adult man cultivates, savours and gives back." Avoiding serious emotional commitments, the boy-man exists on the surface of life.

Cross briefly considers blaming feminism for robbing males of the adult roles they once took for granted but he doesn't want to revive discarded family structures. The causes of chronic immaturity aren't easy to locate, any more than the solution is easy to find. The best we can do at this point is acknowledge that the problem exists and make sure all of us understand its far-from-pleasant consequences.

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