Taking Affection Back
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.