Taking Affection BackMarch 3, 2023
Listen to This Newsletter
Audio Recording by George Hahn
On Saturday I went on CNN with Michael Smerconish to talk about the challenges young men face in America. The headline: 63% of men aged 18-29 in America are single (neither married nor in a committed relationship) — up from 51% just four years ago. Among women, that number is 34%.
In sum, we’re not bringing up enough economically and emotionally viable young men. Male college enrollment in America has declined 10% since 2019, and men now make up just 41% of undergrads. Adjusted for inflation, the average single man makes less today than in 1990; single women are earning roughly the same. One result will be a lack of household formation. Seventy-one percent of women say it’s very important for a male partner to support his family; only 25% of men say the same about women.
Put another way, we’re raising a generation of men who are unviable mates. Marriage rates are in decline — so is sex. The net of these trends is a steady erosion in the West’s greatest innovation, the middle class, whose foundation rests on two people pursuing the grist of a rewarding life: a deep, meaningful relationship. I suggested a few solutions on CNN, such as expanding the number of freshman seats at colleges, investing in vocational training, bringing down the cost of housing with looser housing permit policies, and building more third places — destinations in between home and work where young people can meet.
There’s another side, though — the emotional side. Too many men lack the emotional skills necessary to form meaningful relationships. This has long been the case, but our digital world, where human-to-human contact is scant, magnifies those inadequacies. Affection, both emotional and physical, is what it means to be a mammal, to be human. In fact, research shows that cultures that practice minimal physical affection experience significantly higher rates of violence. That’s just one downside. A strong, healthy man is one who gives, and receives, affection. I wrote about this in 2017; I believe it’s even more relevant today.
[The following was originally published on September 29, 2017.]
As boys, we’re trained that affection is either a means of progressing to sex (seduction) or a signal of homosexuality — which was, when and where I grew up, a bad thing. Because of bad behavior, our touch is not trusted. So most males are robbed of affection. It’s lost from our arsenal to express friendship, fondness, or love.
Touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health. Touch activates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex, which is linked to feelings of reward and compassion. Touch signals safety and trust, it soothes.
— Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology, UC Berkeley
As I get older, which is happening faster and faster recently, I’ve made a conscious effort to take affection back, especially as it relates to my boys. It bonds us, and I’m fairly certain it will add confidence to their lives, and years to mine.
One of my closest friends, Lee, comes from an Italian family. His dad owned furniture stores and looked like Burt Reynolds’s younger brother. Lee Sr. had come up to San Francisco to visit Lee, after he’d moved up to join me at my first firm, Prophet. Lee was diagnosed with a wicked kidney stone and asked me to spend the day with his dad. Easy duty, as I liked Lee Sr., and it provided an excuse to go see the USS Pampanito submarine docked at Fisherman’s Wharf. What dad wouldn’t want to tour a submarine?
A couple memories from that day:
Being stuck in a tin can, 800 meters below the surface of the ocean, on the wrong end of innovation (sonar), and registering your likely demise (of the 50,000 young men in the German U-boat corps, only 10,000 survived) makes you realize you are a function of where and when you’re born. But that’s another post.
The thing I remember most about that day was when Lee Sr. first showed up. He walked into the apartment, and he and Lee Jr. kissed … on the lips, as if they were shaking hands. I had never seen two grown men kiss before. Twenty years later my other touchstone for Italian culture, The Sopranos, confirmed this is common practice. I remember, after the initial shock, thinking it was nice.
I kiss my boys, a lot. The act itself is nice, but the real reward is the respect my boys have for the moment. They can be watching TV, fighting, complaining (they complain a shit-ton), but when I signal the kiss (I lean in and pucker), they stop everything, angle their chin upward, and kiss me on the lips … and then go back to what they were doing. It’s as if they know: This has meaning — the other stuff can wait a few seconds.
I never enjoyed holding hands until I had kids. The things we do for our kids — soccer practices, the worry, the carpools, the bad movies, setting up remote controls, working to give them a better life than ours. In isolation, each of these things is OK — tolerable, but nothing anybody who doesn’t have kids would ever do. Have you seen The Emoji Movie? However, the sum of these parts forms and checks an instinctive box. It gives you the sense you’re serving a larger purpose — the whole evolution thing.
Few things encapsulate this reward and distill it into a single action more than holding your child’s hand. Every kid’s hand fits perfectly into his or her parent’s. It’s one of those moments where you feel if you were to drop dead, it would be bad, but far less tragic than if you hadn’t marked the universe with purpose and success. You’re a parent, and your kid is holding your hand.
My oldest is holding my hand less, as he’s 10 and feeling his independence. At least he doesn’t freak out and scream “Stop it!” like the 14-year-old girl I overheard on the soccer field tonight, whose mom had committed the crime against humanity of grabbing her teenage daughter’s hand. My guess is later the daughter felt bad.
My youngest, 7, still instinctively grabs my hand whenever we’re walking outside, and it’s magical. He’s a barbarian at home, terrorizing us all. But out in the wild he’s a bit intimidated and wants the security of touch from someone he knows will protect him. He goes for his mom’s hand first; I’m runner-up … but that’s OK.
I started registering the individuality of my parents at 6 or 7. Parents are like consumer brands in that, as kids, we remember only two or three key things about them, missing the nuances you only appreciate as you get older and realize people are complicated. My mom was smart, loved me, and was no-nonsense. My dad was intense and quiet around us as a family, but über-charming and outgoing around strangers.
Hard to speculate what your kids will remember about you when they’re older. I’ve inherited some of the anger and intensity of my father, which makes our home less light than it could be. But I’m committed to ensuring one of my kids’ associations with me is “always kissing us, always extending his hand.” If men who look like Burt Reynolds can kiss other men, so can I. I’m taking affection back.
Life is so rich,
P.S. For more on the challenges young men face in America check out my interview on the Prof G Pod with author Richard Reeves on Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.
P.P.S. We’re launching a brand-new Product Strategy Sprint this month with Gibson Biddle, the Netflix veteran who pioneered personalized streaming recommendations. Want to build the next Netflix? Don’t miss this one.
Hi Scott, I read your article ‘More Babies’ and felt the need to share a fact neither you or the 182 comments raised. Infertility needs to be added to the list and I would be very interested in seeing a graphic on infertility diagnosis in the last years. We are (men and women) postponing pregnancies and sadly realising in some circumstances that it is not a viable option for medical reasons. We are led to believe it is ‘ok’ for a woman in her 40s to still plan to have a family and, although in some cases it is successful, it is not easy. Infertility is not talked about openly, you are led to believe the moment you have unprotected sex a child will arrive. That is simply not the norm for a large percentage of the population.
Ps. I know this is not the right place/post.
I know there’s a lot of loneliness, but I think that survey’s about as reliable as the one that other Scott bit on.
I saw elsewhere that 20 percent of Gen Z women claimed they were in same-sex relationships. I’ve noticed that quite a few younger women dating men claim bisexuality to taunt guys they’re not dating, and do it online to annoy a lot of lonely guys at once.
The percentages are ridiculous, but there are a lot of men alone, and there probably are a lot of women alone. Women marrying older, more successful men is my most likely guess for the gap, but a lot of women lying or hanging up on the survey could also be factors.
For years, I’ve noticed that women still want to marry up when they’re in a roughly equal position. That could only work for so long.
Gen Z men have a big problem, since the messages they’re getting, although not new, have been intense for about six years through social and other media. Those are the years that they’ve been teens and young adults forming their life goals.
Those messages must be around them in their lives to be so destructive, and I wonder how even a lot of successful men could have gotten started with that kind of constant chatter.
I hope any young men reading this will try to keep going, keep learning, to try to find something they can do. That’s not a great answer, but it’s better than “lie down and rot.”
In my mom’s family every kid got a kiss hello or goodbye on the cheek from aunts & uncles. and all 11 of us cousins hugged each other. My kids get the same when they visit my mom and my siblings. I hug my kids all the time, my kids hug me back. My 5’6″ daughter sometimes starts some rough wrestling matches with me which makes everybody laugh hysterically. I give them a little peck on the cheek and that’s as intrusive as I get in that area. I always tell them I feel so lucky to be their dad and that I love them. When I’m gone I want their memories to be of a father that showed them and told them they were wanted, important, and that they are good people. My wife & I are raising two of the nicest most considerate people I know, which I am proud to say is a vast improvement over their father.
Once again Scott you write another article on a topic I can closely relate to. It’s uncanny how you hit on life & career occurences I’m going through. It must be our upbringing, when we had kids and our career experiences (although mine haven’t been nearly as economically successful as yours) that have all aligned with the timeframes we’ve been on this planet. So thanks for that look.
Scott, that was really well written and a good reminder to never stop showing affection for all the people around us. I’m always delighted when my kids (now 26 and 28) come in for a hug or even an occasional tickle (another great way of showing human kindness and remembering the importance of laughter in these serious times). Interesting to note the generational differences and for that matter the cultural norm of different societies too. With Italians and French, that quick kiss hello and goodbye is so natural and easy, wish we American could steal that custom once and for all.
I find my Dad, at 92 , still giving a kiss to us upon greeting and of course when saying good bye. Afterall, we never know when it might be the last kiss and I would hate to think I was too consumed in my business of life to stop and show simple affection for the person that brought me into the planet. Love, pass it along.
Scott: I fully agree with you on one of the best things in life is kissing and holding the hand of our kids; but wait until you become a grand father! Unbelievable how we humans can love (intensity and quantity). This is a fundamental component in the Algebra of Happiness. Abrazo, gracias for your sharing your thoughts and be well. Jose M.
I have been watching this issue for a long time. I have followed the MGTOW thread on youtube. There is a lot of anger by young males toward women. It takes a lot of guts to ask a female out. You have to put yourself out there in the wind. I don’t think women and girls understand a little rudeness means that guy they were rude to won’t ask any women again for some time. A few rough “No!” answers will destroy a young man’s ego. You have seen them do this. Two girls laughing at a guy in public. Unconscionable.
This is not taught in class. We rely on family to teach us, and so often today, nobody takes the time to talk to young males, even our own sons or brothers. Luckily I had two sisters to guide me through the minefields.
I think compassion is need on both sides. Young women are bombarded with sexual advances from strangers and not-strangers as early as 10 years old. They are flailing, too, trying to navigate a world that values them as sexual objects only. I feel for the sensitive young men who get steamrolled by exhausted, scared, and understandably angry young women.
In short, this is a problem for all of us to solve because we can’t expect the young to know how to navigate this level of social insanity.
I love this article but I really enjoy the comments below more. You have stated empirical, research-based information, but it apparently isn’t enough to convince the masses. They just can’t “believe” this could be the case. Perhaps, this belief system is part of the problem. Men just can’t believe their trials and failures are their own undoing?
I’ve heard the headline figure several times via your podcasts and other public utterances, and I still can’t make sense of it. It suggests a good serving of young women are in committed relationships with people who aren’t young men. So who ARE they? Older men? Other women? Is it possible the two sexes interpreted the question differently and/or defined their existing relationship in different terms?
Scott the article is misplaced. Its nit about parent chold lack of touch and and affectionate relationships its the total renunciation of any kind of affection between men and women; to which I might add its not just a man’s duty to embrace it , the American women have completely abandoned it. I know I won’t dare another one ever.
Shared this with the men I’m close to. Some aren’t stingy with affection and they’ll appreciate the validation. But some need the permission to show and ask for affection from each other. Thanks for this.
Great post! Growing up Italian had it’s up and downs but “hugs” were still the best part! It made up for a lot of angry disagreements and tirades. Just my 2 cents: I feel a deep sorrow for young men today going on a first date which now resembles a job interview on their part. don’t know what advice I can offer but I do like Thomas Toth’s reply 🙂
This article seems all over the place for me…. 71% of women say that it is important for the man to financially support the family… pretty sure that 71% is not from the 18-29 cohort mentioned before…. my daughter and her friends (in the 18-29 cohort) do not expect men to be the breadwinner in their relationships at all. They look for other qualities as they know that they can have the breadwinner role or better yet, that it can be shared. What I have observed: Girls working much harder than most boys at school to get the grades to get into good programs at good colleges, girls committing to sports/activities that keep them busy and finding other ways for validation away from ‘being the girl who dates the quarterback’. Young women have made strides in the last decades and many boys have languished…. There are so many reasons for this.. many more than can be included in one relatively short article….
You managed to add the exact words to articulate gut feelings, swirling, unformed thoughts around this for me (yeah, the holding hands – magic). Thanks
Yeah, we have heard all this pap before. How wonderfully kind and demonstrable are the Italians versus us frigid heartless northern Europeans. Give me a break!
My Mum has been gone since 2016. When we were in England we would walk up the hill into town, we would hold hands in her coat pocket. By then I was 13 or 14, too old to hold hands but that’s how she was. It’s one of the most enduring memories I have of Evelyn. I forgot her alcoholism, her Irish temper, all I remember are the nice memories like that. I enjoy reading posts like this Scott. Thank you!
Like you, I grew up with boundaries around kissing and holding hands. And one more: hugging. In my family we did none of these. You only held hands with a boyfriend. In fact, it was the announcement that you were in a girlfriend/boyfriend relationship. Imagine my shock the first time I said goodbye to my fiancé’s father and he kissed me on the lips. Happily this fiancé became my husband and he showered our children with lots of touch and still does. Needless to say, I followed suit. When I was a high school exchange student in Turkey I saw that both girls and if you can imagine it, boys held hands with each other. It was a sign of friendship and usually accompanied by smiles and laughter. In my teen world it meant “homosexual.” When my host “sister” took my hand when we were walking around, I literally felt sick. Still, within a couple weeks it became normal and natural. I felt accepted and cared for when a she took my hand. I do see this changing. Hugs are definitely a part of the way that teen girls and boys greet a friend. We all remember reading about the monkey raised by a wire surrogate mother and how it damaged its personality. So let the hugs and kisses fly and get passed on generation to generation.
Most lonely and isolated males with limited dating experience are not potential powder kegs ready to explode. Likely they have buried their desire and hurt and are just looking to get through the day without being judged. Something our society makes it hard to do on the lonely
I was brought up in a Scots/Irish family, as dry as Yankee Pot Roast and not touchy feely despite the homey atmosphere. I remember physical affection from my grandmothers, and my mom a bit but none – from the men and especially my dad. I think it was his military training as an ace bombardier in WWII but I don’t ever
remember hugs or kisses. It was not part of the fabric.
That changed one day when having moved to New York City to attend college, I was invited to an Italian friend’s big family gettogether of dozens of relatives out on Long Island. And where, upon my arrival, I was subsequently hugged by one and all, male, female, aunt, uncle and cousin and I think the family dog. It was overwhelming and infectious – most of all it felt natural. Human.
So it was that my parents came to visit and I remember going to the airport to get them and hugging my mom and turning to my dad who stuck his hand out to shake mine, curt military style and not empty of respect. But which to his surprise and mine, I leaned right past and gave him a big hug. Maybe the first in our relationship. I’m pretty sure I remember tears in his eyes.
When they got ready to leave, after hugging my mom goodbye. I turned to my dad and there he was – with both hands up, ready to give me a hug. It took exactly one hug to shatter that lifetime of rigidity. The shell was broken and the die was cast. And we never shook hands again.
I love this, thanks for sharing.
Def not viable for men to be in relationships. Probably a whole new topic all together, but in Australia, men can find themselves in a defacto r’ship after just 6 months, the woman can take half of everything you have worked for, take your child and make you pay for it. Just saying there are other factors why marriage is on the nose in this town.
I’m living this as a 66 yr old and trying to connect with the affection of a 30 something I need in my life. The question I would like to ask is does “he” know how to share affection. And, I who lost my father in my 30’s, do I know how to show/share it?
your tone hits the sweet spot.
i respect you in spades.
greetings from the land of oz.
This was one of your best write-ups – insightful, real, and lyrical.
lovely. you’re a mensch.
Great post. You are spot on about holdings your kids’ hands. Both my sons are in college, and I tear up any time I think of holding their hands when they were little. I remember thinking, when my youngest was 10 or 11, how any moment it could be the last time. I’m glad you’re living in this moment and are aware.
Beautiful Scott, thank you. When I had advanced training in psychology in late 80’s, my mentor remarked that so many boys were growing up all alone. That after age 5 so many mother’s feared that holding them close would make them gay. And with their dad’s the only connection was sports and competition.
Excellent points all, Scott:
But a question/ a challenge:
Why are only 41% of college undergraduates male? Why isn’t this seen as a crisis? Why no effort to “close the gap?”
Over several decades female enrollment in college and professional schools has increased, a superb phenomenon.
However, over the same period males have come under attack for “toxic masculinity” and a variety of other crimes. Fair enough–for misbehaving male adults. But this has worked its way into the mindset of teachers at elementary and secondary schools: normal male behaviors (shooting a hand up to answer a question, boisterousness, competitiveness) have been labeled anti-social. Cooperation is exalted over competition. Pushing in the schoolyard is a sign of future criminal behavior.
Plainly, elementary and secondary schools are too-often anti-male. Men learn that college is not for them. We have an growing mismatch of college-educated women who want college-educated partners…there just aren’t enough of them. Rather the opposite of the demographic problem China faces due to the selective termination of female pregnancies: not enough women for young Chinese males.
Methinks perhaps men and women have VERY different definitions of “committed relationship” because there aren’t many other ways to mash the numbers above together, even with some fairly gymnastic assumptions as to sexual preference or polyamory LOL ” 63% of men aged 18-29 in America are single (neither married nor in a committed relationship) — up from 51% just four years ago. Among women, that number is 34%.” A whole lot of unaccounted for relationships.
Queer women, Kevin.
Not just that. There’s an epidemic of older men leaving long term relationships and marrying MUCH younger women – a direct tie to the multi billion dollar Viagra industry. Somehow the right wing gets the vapors when a man wears a dress, but is just peachy keen with this, much more prevalent “trend”.
Things I learned, modeled by both of my immigrant grandfathers: kiss your kids and grandkids; hold their hands (when they’ll let you); tell them that you love them. Simple things that go a long way toward building self esteem and empowerment.
>I’ve inherited some of the anger and intensity of my father, which makes our home less light than it could be.
You might find Terrence Real’s book “I don’t want to talk about it” interesting. It is right on the path of self-discovery you are walking.
It’s not only boys. Girls are also having a tough time:
One big policy problem for marriage and children is a lack of good childcare so that neither parent has to take the full load of childcare and both can have a career, or at least a decent job. Which brings up the failure of wages to keep up with inflation, much less the soaring profits. The income and wealth inequality combined with meager social infrastructure means that young people do not believe their lives will be as good as their parents. This has never been true in America before now.
Great article! A number of people have commented on the statistics in the first paragraph (63% of men but only 34% of women are in a “committed” relationship). Maybe its that the women “think” its a committed relationship and the men don’t. There seems to be something wrong with the numbers but I think the gist of the idea is probably true.
If I was a young man today, (I am 74), my mental calculus would be, if I
1. go to stay in college
2. get good gradesrather lame
3. act responsibly and prudently
I can probably get laid … a lot, as the competition is lame
Believe it or not, there were some states where after prohibition, only women were allowed to buy beer at 18, and men (boys) had to wait until they were 21. Reason? Even back then, society understood the maturity gap between girls and boys. I have two boys; one took a gap year, and the other didn’t. That one year of working and not being influenced by others helped prepare him for college. My other son struggled through his new life’s responsibilities of making good decisions, which resulted in him relying on substance abuse to ease the anxiety. We pulled him out of school and got some help. He returned to school and graduated. The point I am making is as women have slowly been considered equal to men, they’ve already taken their gap year and hit the accelerator as soon as they start college or life with a better chance for success. The roles are flipping, and while the mother works, the boy loses real-time prolonged affection that helps prepare boys with relationship building and earlier maturity. Ten percent fewer men attending college may not be wrong if the stigma of not being the breadwinner or accepting that the trades can pay very well.
Love this. Sending kisses xx
“63% of men aged 18-29 in America are single (neither married nor in a committed relationship) — up from 51% just four years ago. Among women, that number is 34%.” –> How does that work? Does that mean that on average 1 guy who is in a relationship has 2 girlfiriends? Or is it that younger girls (18-29) are dating older men and not dating younger men?
Lovely and beautifully written. Fathers seem to be more involved today than 50 years ago.
I can tell by your writing/thinking/actions that you are a nice human being Scott. I trust your family, friends, and society value you. Thank you and keep it up!
This is a bigger issue than how people parent. American cultural life is the most poverty stricken in the world. This is an orphan culture in which we are encouraged to believe we each have personal pathology and that the point of life is getting our own needs met and buying stuff. Young people are the canary in the coal mine. Our way of life doesn’t work. Government that allows guns and no healthcare and doesn’t care if Americans die has been taken note of. We owe it to the young to try to foster new ways of citizenship and kinship.
Very good post Scott. In fact amazing. I am canadian, my background is Colombian. I just returned from Hawaii first time. The highlight of the trip is that my dauther held my hand several times in public, it bond us so much. My son and I kiss on the cheek often even in front of his friends. They are both teenager – young adults (18 year olds). It is one of the things that gives more meaning to my life and our family.
Scott, this is beautiful and also coming at the same time that half the US is in full-freakout mode over what they consider emasculation men and assault on masculinity because the young people don’t care if a dude wears a dress or pearls. You are proposing the expand the same box that conservatives are frantically trying to close back up in protection of what they consider manly. God speed and keep up the good fight.
Beautifully written, great insight,
I do this with my son and daughter.
Like Kyle, I’m concerned about the impact of dating apps on young men’s ability to find a life partner. Endless scrolling implies endless options for both partners. Research shows that when we have too many options, we choose not to choose, based on the fear that amongst all these options we’ve “missed the best one”, so we’re prompted to keep looking and not “settle”. Relationships are what we make of them, I love your comment about the “grist” of building meaningful relationships. Apps create FOMO and the subtle cue that the perfect partner is out there, to provide a relationship where zero grist is needed – false, but alluring!
I agree with the premise of the article: that affection is key, but have to question the statistics. If only 37% of men are married or in a relationship yet 66% of women in the same age group are, then the women are with older men (so the issue resolves with age and there’s not much men can do about it except age) or there are a lot more women in relationships with women than seems likely…What seems more likely to you?
Dating apps have also made it easier for both men and women to focus their efforts on only the most desirable mates. This leaves many people, especially young men, without dates and mating prospects.
The only thing worse than patriarchy for men is patriarchy, capitalism. white supremacy, and nationalism.
I must have missed this one, but I just love it. Now it’s 2023…we need to turn this up, even more!
Love this post. So important for us raising young men to make sure affection is part of our daily lives and seen as a positive thing