Growing a Beard, Getting a Mortgage: When Do Men Become Grown-Ups?

The trickiness of defining manhood in a culture without defined rituals

Walt Disney

Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they talk about the modern male's transition to adulthood. Part one of the discussion is below; parts two and three are here and here.

I just got back a couple days ago from a reporting trip to the Western Cape of South Africa, which included some time with farmworkers mourning the death of Michael Daniels, a young father shot dead by police during a wage protest. There was a visitation of the body, a politically charged funeral, a graveside sermon and afterwards, a traditional meal—the after tears, it's called—back at the deceased's house. For the adults, it was grilled chicken and rice, and for the children, it was an African version of Irish stew, which means a runny plate of boiled potatoes, carrots and peas.

"Only the adults get meat," one of Daniels's friends told me. "Children won't get chicken until they're 11 or 12."

In the poor farmlands of the Western Cape, then, this is at least one definition of adulthood: you get chicken.

Back in the States, there are few such bright lines. Children eat chicken, adults eat popsicles and drink fizzy drinks, and as Christopher Noxon pointed out in his highly entertaining book Rejuvenile, Disney World is the world's top vacation spot for adults (that means, without kids in tow).

All this self-infantilizing, of course, has everything to do with the main difference between us Rejuveniles and, say, African farmworkers: We are wealthy and idle enough to delay adulthood, or even, god forbid, write posts on the Internet about the onset of adulthood.

Further contributors to the confusion: We have this wealth but lack any unifying customs. We don't have something like a toga virilis, the chalk-white robe Romans wore to mark manhood after it was time to offer their childhood amulets up to household gods. A suit and tie is a close approximation, I suppose, whether you're the managing director of Bain Capital or a shift manager at Applebee's. But still, for those of us who eschew Jewish or Wiccan or Catholic rites of passage, and who don't have to get dressed to work, it's up to us to define what manhood is and when it happens.

And on that score, I have no answers. I wake, I eat, I try not to lose my temper at my lovely children, and then I travel for work to places where I'm absolutely sandblasted by the miseries and occasional joys of others. Life is full and enervating and confusing enough without trying to wedge a definition of manhood into it. Case in point: on the nearly 16-hour flight back to New York from South Africa, I spent some time going through my notes, and even more time playing a boxing game on my iPhone. Does that make me a child? A man-child? A rejuvenile? I don't know. But when the dinner cart finally made it to the back of the plane where I sat, I ordered the chicken, whether or not I deserved it.


Presented by

Matt Gross, Theodore Ross, & Nathan Thornburgh

Matt Gross, Theodore Ross, and Nathan Thornburgh write for the website DadWagon. Theodore Ross is the author of Am I a Jew?

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