Ideas

Ideas | Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

The triumph of gender-neutral ‘adulting’

Once, women were taught to bake; men, to skin moose and fell trees. Now, as gender-specific survival skills give way to gender-neutral “adulting,” how will society react?
adobe

Virtually every culture has had ways of separating the men from the boys and the women from the girls. Many have marked this transition with coming-of-age rituals — bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras, debutante balls — after which each gender faced specific expectations. For men, the to-do list included getting a job, becoming a protector and provider, being prepared for eventualities that required brawn, such as skinning a moose or felling a tree. Advice for young women centered on how to be a good wife or mother, how to keep a house, how to type, how not to annoy your husband.

Kelly Williams Brown had a different experience, one far closer to today’s norm for young women and men alike. After graduating from college, she found a job working as a reporter — what she’d gone to college to do — and was standing in her first apartment, alone. “I remember thinking, ‘OK, here we are. Now it’s up to me,’” she said. “It’s an empowering thought, but it’s a terrifying thought at the same time.”

By her own account, she spent the next few years “flailing,” learning that becoming a real grown-up doesn’t happen when you turn 18 or get your first job. Instead, it’s the slow accumulation of skills and life experiences, tipping the scales gently toward “adult.” So in 2013, she wrote a book about it — “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps.” It made the New York Times best-seller list. “Step 1: Accept that you are not that special.” “Step 23: Learn how to patch nail holes.” “Step 85: Master oatmeal.” “Step 105: Read opinions from people who disagree with you.” “Step 112: Do not RSVP ‘maybe.’” “Step 273: Know how to check your car’s oil.” “Step 320: Wear sunscreen.”

Advertisement

“Adulting” has since spawned a millennial cottage industry, replete with T-shirts, coffee mugs, copycat books, and, of course, a backlash (“Kindly Shut The Hell Up About ‘Adulting,’” a Cosmopolitan writer grumbled in 2016). This year, a second edition of the book came out with more steps — 535!

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Williams Brown’s list is long because modern life is complicated. But throughout history, people have been doling out this kind of advice, the content of which has always been subject to change with technological progress and evolving social mores. Where once you’d have to know how to field-dress a rabbit and change a car’s oil, Jiffy Lube and your supermarket’s meat department have addressed those needs.

Yet the rise of “adulting” also represents something far more than a response to changing economic conditions. It also represents the slow creep of universal human skills over gendered skills.

“I believe that part of being a functional and able human in the world is trying to discern what are your responsibilities and what do you have control over,” said Williams Brown. “When I was thinking about these skills, I was able to write a fairly genderless book.”

What were once parallel streams for men and women are now converging. As millennials stumble, claw, or sail their way into adulthood, the lists of gender-specific skills every man (or woman) should know are giving way to something new — a unisex form of adulting.

Advertisement

Google “skills every woman should know” or “skills every man should know,” and dozens of pages of well-meaning advice still appear. But now, these lists increasingly overlap. Adult women are expected to perform such “man skills” as changing a tire or mounting a shelf. The reverse is also true: Skills such as how to look good in photos or calm a crying baby are also appearing on men’s lists. In the last 50 years, women are suddenly becoming adults in the same way men are, while men are experiencing a shift in what it means to be an adult male.

And that has lots of people freaking out. The Canadian psychologist and right-wing intellectual Jordan Peterson, for one, declares in interviews that “the masculine spirit is under attack,” and he urges (male) readers to “man up.” His best-selling book “12 Rules for Life” has found an anxious audience. Peterson’s sudden fame only underscores the divisiveness of this question: What does it mean for society when some man skills wane in importance, and others turn out to be equally useful for women?

When women and women’s work are relegated to an auxiliary position in society, people become more interested in the meaning of manhood. “Nobody was born a man,” the writer Norman Mailer, an enemy of feminism, insisted in “Armies of the Night.” “You earned manhood provided you were good enough, bold enough.’” Why didn’t Bob Dylan ask, “How many roads must a woman walk down before you can call her a woman?” Because the question of how a woman becomes a woman was less interesting to the men writing songs, novels, and plays — not to mention course syllabi and legislation. It’s not that men needed more guidance than women; it’s that it’s somehow worse for men to be perceived as failing at their assigned task. Moreover, women weren’t expected to shape the world anyway.

Despite the rise of “adulting,” there’s still an appetite for training in manliness. In 2015, the Art of Manliness published quite possibly the father of all man lists, “100 Skills Every Man Should Know.” “That list was a curation of the stuff that we thought every guy should know over the years,” explained Brett McKay, who sports a very fine moustache and who started the Art of Manliness with his wife in 2008. The popularity of the site — 10 million page views a month — and its related books means that McKay has a law degree from the University of Tulsa that he’s never used. The list, he said, is a distillation of the skills, both “hard” and “soft,” that a modern man needs to know in order to conduct himself effectively and usefully in the world. To not just be a man, but be manly.

McKay says that he and his team — his wife, contributors, and editors — “didn’t have any firm criteria” but, drawing on the wealth of material they’d published in previous posts and lists from across the 20th century, included stuff that “sounded right.” What sounded right were skills like skippering a boat, making a fire without matches, knowing CPR and how to sew on a button, practicing “situational awareness,” properly pouring a beer, entertaining yourself without a smartphone, whistling with your fingers, making pancakes from scratch, and changing your car’s oil. A significant number had to do with guns or hunting. The portrait that emerges is of a man who is capable of meeting any situation — from a dirty diaper to a bear attack — with confidence.

Advertisement

“You see this across cultures. Men for whatever reason, that might be biology or socialization, want to feel like they’re confident and effective,” said McKay. “These lists, they’re fun. . . but it gives you something to work off of.”

As millennials stumble, claw, or sail their way into adulthood, the lists of gender-specific skills every man (or woman) should know are giving way to something new — a unisex form of adulting.

This confident manly guy fits with the outlook of Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard and author of the 2006 book “Manliness.” American manliness, according to Mansfield, is “being in command, being in charge, being responsible, a take-charge guy, somebody who doesn’t just sit on the sidelines and watch, but in an emergency or in a situation which is not being controlled by anybody, he would step forth and take charge.” Manliness can be “imitated by women,” he said, but these women are few and far between. (The example he cited was Margaret Thatcher.)

Mansfield has been critical of President Trump, whom he views as “not a gentleman.” But he sees Trump as a symptom. Trump is a reaction, Mansfield said, to the gains of “feminism” — women shoving aside men in power and absorbing manly skills themselves.

This prospect is terrifically frightening to some people. In 2008, University of South Florida psychologists Jennifer K. Bosson and Joseph A. Vandello coined the phrase “precarious manhood,” exploring the concept in a paper published in “Current Directions in Psychological Science.” Their idea, based on research and studies, described a “manliness” that is hard to attain and easy to lose, defined by social markers rather than by biological or physical traits. In two of their studies, they concluded that “manhood” is threatened when men are asked to participate in female-gendered activities and that threatening manhood can activate physically aggressive thoughts. Consistent with that prediction are recent outbursts of violence in the United States — by angry men at alt-right rallies, by self-described “incels” (that is, involuntary celibates) emerging from the dank corners of the Internet.

Mansfield made a similar forecast at the end of his book, declaring, “The problem of manliness is not that it does not exist. It does exist, but it is unemployed.” He points to the “headwinds of gender neutrality” and modernity. “The movement towards neutrality is not neutral; it favors women. To a man, it seems vaguely or even sharply menacing,” Mansfield said. Manliness is afraid of being rendered obsolete. “The question is whether gender-neutral society leaves enough to manliness,” he continued. So far, the answer is maybe not: “Unemployed manliness is a problem today in our society. There’s no outlet for it, no respectable outlet.”

Lists like “100 Skills Every Man Should Know,” Mansfield says, are a sign that manliness still has relevance. Such advice is well-intentioned and celebratory, conveying constructive messages about manliness and the behavior of men; like the Boy Scouts or the YMCA, it seeks to promote helpfulness and usefulness as an antidote to that unemployed manliness. “One of the things that I’ve found in my life, and this is not just for men — we find meaning, we find purpose through action,” said McKay. He adds, “Am I saying is this, like, the answer? No, that would be dumb. But it’s a start. . . . The goal is to get people using their personal judgment and doing things on their own. I think these lists can help jump-start that.”

* * *

Still, the big question remains: What makes these skills man skills and not simply people skills? “That’s a fair question,” acknowledged McKay, noting that his site is directed towards men, so in his list’s case, it’s an issue of audience. But, he added, “We’re living in a time that the skills you need to thrive in the modern world, both men and women need them. I think that’s a perfectly fair statement.”

In the short term, at least, there are some different skills that women or men need to possess in order to navigate life. For example, researchers who examine gender pay disparities and workplace discrimination say that, when women try to negotiate raises themselves, they can be perceived as too demanding, unlikeable, not feminine enough. This, experts told the New York Times, means that women have to learn to ask for raises differently.

By and large, though, the lives of young men and young women are changing in similar ways. Traditional markers of adulthood, such as moving out of their parents’ homes, getting married, and buying houses, are happening at different rate for millennials than for generations that came of age in the 20th century.

In the absence of certainty, people like lists. “The point of these lists is that you’re preparing yourself for the uncertainty of life while acknowledging that these things might not come to pass,” said Williams Brown. “Knowing those skills feels like a bit of insurance against fear or anxiety.”

And as long as “people need to know how to be people,” as McKay explained, we’ll still need those lists. We’ll keep reading them, clicking on them, and listening to them in podcasts because they offer a map to the utterly unmappable. Because really, all of us — all of us — are winging it.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American freelance writer living in London.