What's Happening to Boys?

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By Leonard Sax
Friday, March 31, 2006

The romantic comedy "Failure to Launch," which opened as the No. 1 movie in the nation this month, has substantially exceeded pre-launch predictions, taking in more than $64 million in its first three weeks.

Matthew McConaughey plays a young man who is affable, intelligent, good-looking -- and completely unmotivated. He's still living at home and seems to have no ambitions beyond playing video games, hanging out with his buddies (two young men who are also still living with their parents) and having sex. In desperation, his parents hire a professional motivation consultant, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, who pretends to fall in love with McConaughey's character in the hope that a romantic relationship will motivate him to move out of his parents' home and get a life.

The movie has received mixed reviews, though The Post's Stephen Hunter praised it as "the best comedy since I don't know when." But putting aside the movie's artistic merits or lack thereof, I was struck by how well its central idea resonates with what I'm seeing in my office with greater and greater frequency. Justin goes off to college for a year or two, wastes thousands of dollars of his parents' money, then gets bored and comes home to take up residence in his old room, the same bedroom where he lived when he was in high school. Now he's working 16 hours a week at Kinko's or part time at Starbucks.

His parents are pulling their hair out. "For God's sake, Justin, you're 26 years old. You're not in school. You don't have a career. You don't even have a girlfriend. What's the plan? When are you going to get a life?"

"What's the problem?" Justin asks. "I haven't gotten arrested for anything, I haven't asked you guys for money. Why can't you just chill?"

This phenomenon cuts across all demographics. You'll find it in families both rich and poor; black, white, Asian and Hispanic; urban, suburban and rural. According to the Census Bureau, fully one-third of young men ages 22 to 34 are still living at home with their parents -- a roughly 100 percent increase in the past 20 years. No such change has occurred with regard to young women. Why?

My friend and colleague Judy Kleinfeld, a professor at the University of Alaska, has spent many years studying this growing phenomenon. She points out that many young women are living at home nowadays as well. But those young women usually have a definite plan. They're working toward a college degree, or they're saving money to open their own business. And when you come back three or four years later, you'll find that in most cases those young women have achieved their goal, or something like it. They've earned that degree. They've opened their business.

But not the boys. "The girls are driven; the boys have no direction," is the way Kleinfeld summarizes her findings. Kleinfeld is organizing a national Boys Project, with a board composed of leading researchers and writers such as Sandra Stotsky, Michael Thompson and Richard Whitmire, to figure out what's going wrong with boys. The project is only a few weeks old, it has called no news conferences and its Web site ( http://www.boysproject.net ) has just been launched.

So far we've just been asking one another the question: What's happening to boys? We've batted around lots of ideas. Maybe the problem has to do with the way the school curriculum has changed. Maybe it has to do with environmental toxins that affect boys differently than girls (not as crazy an idea as it sounds). Maybe it has to do with changes in the workforce, with fewer blue-collar jobs and more emphasis on the service industry. Maybe it's some combination of all of the above, or other factors we haven't yet identified.

In Ayn Rand's humorless apocalyptic novel "Atlas Shrugged," the central characters ask: What would happen if someone turned off the motor that drives the world? We may be living in such a time, a time when the motor that drives the world is running down or stuck in neutral -- but only for boys.

Leonard Sax, a family physician and psychologist in Montgomery County, is the author of "Boys Adrift: What's Really Behind the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys," to be published next year. He will take questions at noon today athttp://www.washingtonpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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