The rise of the man-child

WILD RIDE: David Chapman, a 42-year-old father of two, is holding on to his inner child.
WILD RIDE: David Chapman, a 42-year-old father of two, is holding on to his inner child.

At the age of 27, my father was married, had a mortgage, a career path and a six-year-old son. At the same age, my wife's father had his wife, a job in a bank, a mortgage, one child and another on the way. They were serious men, adults by all relevant markers.

Mark Stephens, 37, works in computer graphics. He's spent the past year learning to surf and speak Spanish in Costa Rica. He's had two mortgages but no serious partner and has chosen a life of experiences and wandering the world over the traditional version of "settling down".

"My lack of a serious partner or kids has given me flexibility I wouldn't otherwise have," he says. "I've often wondered if I've chosen to be single to continue my lifestyle. I'm still looking for a partner but I'm no longer so sure I'm the best judge of my real intentions. I've met amazing girls but they all leave. And I do wonder if I've subconsciously arranged things that way."

MAKING THE MOST OF LIFE: John Matkovic: "If a bus hit me tomorrow, I can say I lived life."
MAKING THE MOST OF LIFE: John Matkovic: "If a bus hit me tomorrow, I can say I lived life."

Stephens has rejected what sociologists call our "life script" - how a society maps out the way its members' lives should progress. Some would say he is part of the Peter Pan generation, the men who never grow up.

A study in the UK found that a third of British men admitted they didn't know how to clean the bathroom, iron a shirt or use household appliances. One in seven said their mum still did their washing; two-thirds still had an overly active interest in kids' toys, such as Lego.

In the United States, this man-child phenomenon has provoked significant discussion, much of it centred around the book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys. Author Kay Hymowitz refers to this pre-adulthood as a "sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance".

"It's time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: this 'pre-adulthood' doesn't bring out the best in men," Hymowitz writes.

We all know him: he's aged between 25 and 45, he may still live at home, he shirks traditional ties and loves fart jokes. He's Seth Rogen's stoner in Knocked Up; he's Adam Sandler in, well, anything; he's Modern Family's Phil Dunphy, only - god help us - Phil is responsible for kids.

But the man-child is not always stupid. In the '90s, the granddaddy of the man-child was Ethan Hawke's slacker in Reality Bites, who could give you a piercing definition of irony without even lifting his beer off the sofa. And he's not always poor, but he does like to live as if he's a decade younger than he is.

And he's me, apparently. When I asked my wife if she thought I fell into the Peter Pan category, the words gushed out like she'd been waiting for this question our whole married life. "Yes! You happily sit there and watch cartoons with the kids, you wear those same cartoons on your T-shirts, you still value your Star Wars toy collection, you get excited by food that I cook for the kids, stuff that's bland and eaten with fingers, and when you finish I still have to tell you to clear your plate," she said without taking a breath.

So what's so wrong with this new, bumper-sized adult-escence? We live longer, work longer. Why not extend the fun part, the part before all the serious stuff begins? The main problem seems to be how it is affecting our relations with the opposite sex. Women have been fighting for their right to be more responsible, while we have been fighting for our right to party - and they're getting a little sick of it.

"At least half of the men I've dated have been man-children," says Melanie Preston, a 30-year-old social media consultant. "They are exhausting. Their antics force you into a mothering role and any romance or sexual attraction soon evaporates."

Stephens says his commitment-phobia has been called out often in his all-too-brief relationships: "But I don't think I'm dodging responsibility, I'm just aware of how big a thing commitment actually is. I don't want to drift into it and I don't want to passively give up my freedom. I want to actively lay one down to pick up the other."

Psychologist Cath Hutchinson says it is now very popular for women to say things like: "When I got a baby, I got two", referring to their partners. But she is wary of using the term man-child in couple's therapy: "If someone starts from the position of, 'You're a child', it's very difficult to have a meaningful communication about what's really up." That said, she is seeing a rise in the number of males who are avoiding responsibility, and are reluctant to put away childish things.

"I think men are very confused," says Hutchinson. "With the rise of feminism, there is a great deal of expectation on men in this generation and I don't think they know what to do to satisfy the requirements of their partners. When there was a very patriarchal structure, men knew exactly what to do. They did it well, they brought home the bread and it worked. Now men are expected to do a thousand different things."

But defining the key factors behind the rise of this new pre-adult male is harder, with less traditional societal structure, a new economic flexibility, easy connectivity with friends, and even how they were raised all playing a part.

"A lot of it is in the parenting of the man," Hutchinson says. "If his mother has always done everything and he left home at 22 and continued to bring his washing home, then in some ways women can be their own worst enemies in that context. But when you meet your partner and decide to have a long-term relationship and children with them, if you're not pulling your weight, your partner has to communicate that."

So do kids instantly cure you of your man-child status? (No, according to my wife.) Is there a more serious commitment a man can undertake?

David Chapman is 42. His dress sense could charitably be called "nouveau mystic", he loves sliding down grass hills on the seat of his pants in the rain and he has a passion for practical jokes. Chapman also runs Bodypractic, a chiropractic practice, and has developed an app to help with neck problems. He is also the father of two boys, but his partner would classify him as Gen Peter Pan.

"To me, the term man-child can just mean a lack of conformity," Chapman says. "Just because the majority might frown or not lighten up doesn't make it wrong. Does the fact I work barefoot or do not wear a tie affect my ability to perform tasks and responsibilities?"

Chapman boasts of taking his kids to the movies on school days and having ice-cream for breakfast (on non-school days), and he says his business could be bigger, and his income larger. But he has proudly put playing with his kids above all that. "Laughter is still the best medicine, so to muck around with your kids on their level is a privilege - and cathartic for both the kids and the person who is Peter Panning it," he says.

Hutchinson agrees. "It can be a positive thing," she says. "When a child gets to play, they understand the world. And if a parent is beside them, that's a very powerful bond. In a way, the more playful an adult can be with a child, the more positive that is for the child. But that adult also needs to be an adult presence in their relationship with their partner."

John Matkovic, 39, is a field operations manager for a large corporation, and has spent the past 10 years chasing winter around the world, snowboard in hand. He is single and treasures his surfing weekends away with mates. He recently secured a mortgage in a conscious attempt to give himself a veneer of stability to potential partners, but he also recently ended a year-long relationship.

Matkovic thinks the man-child is a reaction to the earlier, harder-working generations. "The difference is my parents were immigrants who came to Australia with nothing and, through hard work and sacrifice, built a house and fed, clothed and educated my brother and me," he says.

"Today, we don't believe in sacrifice. It's all spend, spend, spend - and on what? Sacrifice is a dirty word. We did not learn the lessons from our parents on how to get ahead. If so, I would not have travelled for 15 years, and saved the $100,000-plus I spent and been financially better off - but if a bus hit me tomorrow, I can say I lived life."

That is not to say the man-child is ignorant to loss, and that it is a life without regret. "As I'm getting older, it doesn't look like I will have kids and I did want that," Matkovic says. "I never wanted to be an older dad and to me my 'clock' is ticking as well, though I have come to terms with that."

Stephens still holds out the hope of a family, when the wanderlust is over. "People tell me they are jealous of my lifestyle," he says. "I respond that I'm jealous of their 10-year relationship with their best friend and their gorgeous, adoring children. Well, on a good day, anyway. It's pretty clear that you can't have it all at the same time."

Sometimes I feel you can. I have two beautiful kids who allow me to indulge my inner child; I can have Star Wars movie marathons and call it parenting; I can travel the world and still afford to live in a nice apartment, albeit one that is rented. I do refuse to put away some childish things. But it is the subtle impact on my partner - the fact she sees me as less than a fully-fledged adult - that gives me pause for thought.

"It's your life," says Stephens. "Within the very real constraint of not hurting anybody, it is yours to do with as you choose. That's the great gift we in the developed world have been given.

"What do you want most and what will you have to sacrifice to get it? There are no right answers, although probably plenty of wrong ones. Take as much guidance as you can and then walk your own path. That could be a mortgage and kids, or it could be climbing Everest. Just make it count."

- Daily Life