It’s a recurring lament we hear from women at the University of Virginia:
Where are the good guys? The guys interested in commitment, and the guys who have drive, ambition and purpose?
This is not to say that such men are entirely absent at U.Va., where we teach and attend school; they are just in short supply relative to the women with a clear focus on their future and interested in a serious relationship.
Take Cece, a rising senior: “The majority of the guys I’ve encountered at U.Va. don’t want to commit to an actual relationship. They haven’t grown up. They want to hook up with girls, but that’s it. Many of my friends and I are frustrated with the lack of maturity our guy friends exemplify. My parents met in college, which was common among their generation, and are about to celebrate their 30th anniversary. Meanwhile, I have one year left at U.Va. and don’t foresee myself dating anyone.”
The relationship frustrations of women like these are rooted in a broader problem: They do not have a ready pool of good young men to date, partly because many of our nation’s young men are floundering as they make the transition from adolescence to young adulthood. This problem is visible in our schools, colleges and universities, and today’s marketplace. Young men are increasingly less likely than women to enroll in college and less likely than women to apply themselves even if they land in college; a growing number of them are also idle or underemployed as they move through their 20s.
Our “young men problem” is rooted in a range of factors — the rise of electronic opiates, which distract young men from education and work and have come to replace traditional avenues of social relations; the absence of models of pro-social masculinity that furnish norms for male engagement in school, work and relationships as they move into adulthood; a culture that discounts commitment; and biological differences in rates of male and female maturation.
But a new report from the Institute for Family Studies, “Life Without Father,” suggests that another issue is in play. Too many boys have grown up in homes without engaged or present fathers, which has left them especially unprepared to navigate school, work and relationships successfully.
Too few good men
Here at U.Va., one of the signs of the young man problem is that they are, simply, absent from “Grounds,” our word for campus. At our university, women outnumber men 56 to 44. Nationally, it is worse: there are almost 60 women for every 40 men. Across the country, this means that a large minority of heterosexual women cannot find any men to date on their college campuses.
And even when it comes to the men who are in college, female students are often disappointed with the quality of the guys they find, even at the University of Virginia. “Sometimes it is just very frustrating to me when I want to tell a guy I know who is living his life in some sort of unsatisfactory way,” said Isabela, a junior. “I have to hold myself back from being like, ‘What are you doing? The way that you’re living is contributing to your unhappiness.’”
“I would say the qualities of guys I generally come across are not necessarily guys I would date,” said Claire, also a junior. Claire has noticed, at least in the School of Architecture, that “the girls seem to be driven and just focused on academics … a little more serious about it (than guys).”
Tommy, a rising senior, attests that “girls are much more focused and deliberate and sincere about their work than most of the guys that I know.” He sees a kind of “prolonged adolescence” in many of the men at U.Va.
This notion of prolonged adolescence is not simply anecdotal, but a central concern of researchers who study young men. In his book “Guyland”, sociologist Michael Kimmel described it this way:
“In another era, these guys would undoubtedly be poised to take their place in the adult world, taking the first steps toward becoming the nation’s future professional, entrepreneurs and business leaders. They would be engaged to be married, thinking about settling down with a family, preparing for futures as civic leaders and Little League dads. Not today. Today, many of these young men, poised between adolescence and adulthood, are more likely to feel anxious and uncertain. In college, they party hard but are soft on studying. … After graduation, they drift aimlessly from one dead-end job to another, spend more time online playing video games and gambling than they do on dates. …”
These observations are borne out by trends in academic performance and on-time graduation. Women have attained consistently higher GPAs than their male peers, per a study examining the GPAs of students at select Florida and Texas universities which showed average GPAs of 2.67 and 2.85 for men and women respectively. Fewer of the men who attend college end up graduating than women — with 50% of women graduating “on time” compared to just 40% of men, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal.
This pattern extends beyond college into the 20-something years. “I would say they’re not as serious about their work as men were several decades ago,” observed Holly, a recent U.Va. graduate. This was one part of her frustration with dating prospects, along with their “lack of relational skills.” In line with her comment, a growing share of young men are out of the labor force. Between 1999 and 2018, the employment rate for young men fell by 10.4 percentage points — almost double that of young women.
Fathers and friends
Part of this problem is attributable to the shifting character of family life in America. We know that children with absent fathers are less likely to thrive on a variety of measures of academic, professional and social success. Even for those with present fathers, like many here at U.Va., many young men have not been given clear guidance from their dads about how to navigate relationships and develop a clear identity as a man. While today’s fathers are better equipped to help their children navigate school and work, they are less adept when it comes to preparing young men for dating, relationships and marriage.
“These people are ill-fathered,” Tommy observed, “and they don’t have the right moral fiber that would lead them to use that freedom well, so they become idle and complacent, and they don’t really feel challenged, and they feel bored.”
More than anything, this growing body of directionless men indicates that the institutions which used to give shape and meaning to their lives are not as powerful as they once were. Churches, schools and even families are less likely to give clear and compelling guidance to young men as they prepare for adulthood. They’re also competing with influences — from gaming to social media — that push young men away from adulthood and toward prolonged adolescence.
“To me it seems like they’re floundering, but I know there’s more that goes on,” Catherine, a recent graduate, said. “Men are lacking the resources to deal with a lot of other things, and whether they have the strength to reject acting that way probably does come from how they were raised … but what really perpetuates it is their peers, and a society of boys doing the exact same thing.”
The observations of these students are borne out by the new Institute for Family Studies report. Our “young men problem” is especially common among those raised apart from their biological fathers. These young men are disproportionately more likely to flounder in school and less likely to graduate from college. Of those whose fathers were present, 35% graduated from college; this was true for only 14% among young men raised apart from their fathers.
Those with absent fathers were also almost twice as likely to be idle in their 20s.
A considerable 19% of young men with absent fathers are idle in their 20s, neither working or in school, compared to only 11% of those with present fathers. Such men are especially unlikely to be good prospects for dating, mating and marriage for today’s young women.
If we wish to revive the fortunes of today’s young men, we must help fathers teach their sons how to prepare better for adulthood, relationships and marriage. And we must also revive our most fundamental bond, marriage, because it connects men to their sons in a way nothing else does. These steps matter, not just for renewing the fortunes of young men, but also for the sake of the women looking for good partners to love, marry and start families with in the future.
Brad Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and The Future of Freedom fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. Emma Fuentes is an undergraduate studying English at the University of Virginia. Michael Krieger is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia.