This morning, a young man told me he wanted to live with me for ever. I’m his mum – my heart soared – how could I ever imagine him fleeing our nest, after all? Then my coffee kicked in and a story prompted by a new Office for National Statistics report flashed across my phone, about how a third of young men between 20 and 34 still live at home with their parents in 2017, compared with a fifth of young women.
OK, I have time on my hands, I thought, breathing quickly – my son’s three. But there’s a deeper issue at play here, once you dig into its meat, about how we treat our young boys differently to our young girls.
Michelle Obama touched on this last week at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago, in a conversation with poet Elizabeth Alexander about gender differences (brief aside: please stage a coup of your old digs on Capitol Hill, ’Shell, and fast). “We raise our girls to be strong and sometimes we take care not to hurt men,” she began. “And I think we pay for that a little bit.”
Raising men gently and with love was a good thing, she was at pains to point out – but the same rules given to young women should be given to them. “And it’s powerful to have strong men, but what does that strength mean? Does it mean respect? Does it mean responsibility? Does it mean compassion – or are we protecting our men too much?’”
The major issue fuelling the ONS report is wider than this, of course: leaping living and renting costs are severely inhibiting young people’s independence in 2017. Still, 33 per cent of men versus 20 per cent of women is a startling discrepancy, which requires further analysis. And, while I don’t pretend to be a statistician (she says hoping a further survey is commissioned to find out why this discrepancy exists), I think it’s got something to do with how men are traditionally meant to be supported in ways that women aren’t – especially when it comes to being at home.
There’s a deeper issue at play here, once you dig into its meat, about how we treat our young boys differently to our young girls
Think about it: a woman’s traditional role in the family used to be for the enabling of a man to live his life. Translate this to this report, and the following ideas emerge: Mum will do my laundry. Mum will buy birthday presents for my family and friends. Mum will sort me out. It’s a dynamic that still plays out in the lives of many parents and sons that I know – it’s emotional labour, good and proper, as debated here at The Pool many times before.
Not everyone agrees with me, though. Take Frank Furedi, Emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, who thinks the “feminisation of society” is to blame. He offered The Daily Telegraph this dizzyingly erudite theory last night (and, yes, I’m rather partial to a soupçon of sarcasm): “A lot of young men find the transition to adulthood particularly difficult because male values and masculine values are regarded less favourably than feminine values. Masculine norms have been devalued quite considerably. There is a lack of aspiration among men because they feel more insecure. There is no clear construct of what it is to be an independent man.”
As I pant for my blood-pressure gauge, I’ll admit Furedi makes a few clear points. Yes, the idea of a young man’s “transition to adulthood” has changed hugely in recent years. “Masculine values” are now regarded less favourably than they used to be, too. To which I say, “Thank God for that.” My son is growing up in a home where his dad does the bulk of the childcare; where masculine stereotypes are challenged if they ever pop up in conversation. This. Is. A. Good. Thing. Together, my lovely husband and I teach our son to be compassionate, kind, independent and forthright. These aren’t gendered values in our house. In the wider world, they shouldn’t be either.
As for Furedi’s idea of a lack of aspiration for young men stemming from insecurity? My heart bleeds. Women have dealt with insecurity in its emotional, physical and economic manifestations for centuries – and still do. They flee the family nest while encountering such delights as the gender pay gap at work, and a society still sceptical of the corrosive effects of “small-time” sexual harassment. As for men needing a clear construct of what it is to be an independent man? Just look to the rules of common human decency, which, strangely enough, don’t depend on you having testicles or ovaries. Be respectful. Be compassionate. But also – hey! – be responsible. Get out there and take on the world in your own way. Just don’t rely on other people to carry the can.
I’ll be bearing this in mind the next time I hear a little voice saying he wants to live with me for ever. In some ways, though, perhaps he always will, my voice being a home in his head for the values I’ve tried to teach him so far. The values I always will.