Self-Indulgence Stinks

As industry has made humans rich, we have become more self-indulgent. But while we might each prefer to be self-indulgent, we are less thrilled by the self-indulgence of those around us. For example, Kay Hymowitz on her book, “Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys”:

Not so long ago, the average American man in his 20s had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage and children. Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. …

What has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn’t bring out the best in men. … “A guy’s idea of a perfect night is a hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends. … They are more like the kids we babysat than the dads who drove us home.” …

Large numbers of single young men and women living independently, while also having enough disposable income to avoid ever messing up their kitchens, is something entirely new in human experience. … We often hear about the miseries of women confined to the domestic sphere. … But it seems that men didn’t much like the arrangement either. … They turned to hobbies and adventures, like hunting and fishing. … What explains this puerile shallowness? … The qualities of character men once needed to play their roles—fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity—are obsolete. … Relatively affluent, free of family responsibilities, and entertained by an array of media devoted to his every pleasure, the single young man can live in pig heaven.

This makes sense, except that Hymowitz seems to unfairly exempt women from criticism:

Among pre-adults, women are the first sex. They graduate from college in greater numbers, and they have higher GPAs. As most professors tell it, they also have more confidence and drive. … They are more likely than men to be in grad school. … In a number of cities, they are even out-earning their brothers and boyfriends.

And why exactly should society celebrate women’s college GPAs more than men’s high PlayStation scores? After all, college is mostly a wasteful signaling game. And men still out-earn women on average at all ages, mostly because women tend to choose self-fulfilling majors and careers over high paying ones. So those higher fem GPAs are more a sign of self-indulgence than social contribution, at least if we measure contribution by income.

And even if women did earn more, are folks devoted to working to pay for high fashion or travel really any less self-indulgent than those who hone guitar skills? Let’s not forget that our vast fall in fertility seems due more to the changing preferences of women (vs. men) for a fun life unencumbered by kids.

This needn’t be a gender issue. Can’t we just all admit that we’ve all become more self-indulgent as we’ve grown rich, and that, like our icky odors, our own self-indulgence smells better than that of others?

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  • The only way this article makes sense is if you read it as complaining about the adverse effect of the culture shift on the supply of men (moving the median male farther away from the woman’s provider ideal) while ignoring the converse effect on the supply of women that men would prefer.

  • Excellent post. I too marvel at folks who propagandize for their own achievements – apparently getting a Masters or two in English and Creative Writing while waiting for Mr Wall Street to ride up on his white horse is a more adult creative social etc. way to spend one’s early 20s than is playing videogames. They’re both self indulgent positioning for advantage, just in different games.

    • anon

      In all fairness, creative writing _is_ more socially useful than playing videogames. Yes, some videogames yield social utility, such as Fold/it or Galaxy Zoo, but these are quite rare.

      • Evan

        you could argue that the demand for video games encourages innovation in high powered gaming systems. some of the rapid advancement in processing power must be attributed to the demand for better graphics, faster loading, etc.
        plus interfaces like the xbox kinect could one day become more widespread in ‘productive’ computing

      • Alan

        Re: social aspects of gaming You might want to look at some of the PAX videos at Penny Arcade TV, or check out Child’s Play. Gaming is socially useful for some gamers – in fact one might argue that these individuals find the social aspect the primary aspect of gaming. Gaming has grown to be a business on a similar scale to “Hollywood”, and may soon even employ more writers.
        You might argue that production of games is different to consumption, I would concede this, but how many creative writing / English majors actually produce creative writing after graduating?

      • anon

        Computer 3D graphics was widely used in industry and defense prior to it becoming ubiquitous in videogames. Most high-end graphics workstations used to be supplied by SGI, but that firm was pushed out of the market as x86-based systems became more powerful and other vendors stepped in to provide 3D graphics for those platforms. It’s not clear that videogames had any relevance in these developents.

        WRT production of creative writing, it is surprisingly common. Of course 99.9% of it turns out to be crap, but see e.g. J.K. Rowling’s work, which was quite successful.

      • gwern0

         I’ll admit that it may be harder to prove that demand for video games pushed forward 3D graphics in the distant past, but I would have thought the ’00s along proved that it has happened before: look at the Xbox 360 or PS3.

      • Doug S.

        As far as I can tell, most written fiction is just as socially useless as most video games.

      • IVV

        And video game fanfic? Yeesh.

      • Thomas

        Not at all — while video games or creative writing may waste the time of the player or writer, creative writing also wastes the time of the reader.

    • Carinthium

      Not to mention that getting a Masters in English or Creative writing is clearly more effective status seeking then playing video games in almost all cases.

  • dave

    The problem is that by the time woman’s sexual power fades, and they realize they need to offer a man more then sex to get won, they have also lost their fertility.

  • Grant

    My anecdotes as a wealthy, fit male primarily interested in his hobbies:

    I would consider more of a ‘provider’ lifestyle if I thought it would attract attractive, quality women, but it doesn’t seem to.

    Most single women I see seem to be attracted to men obsessed with partying, drinking, and hobbies with little practical use (as opposed to intellectual and engineering-related hobbies; e.g. computer programming). The men I know who sleep with the most women tend to be poorer, less employed, less reliable, less intellectual and generally less mature. Basically they have more free time on their hands to chase women all day.

    I would like to see data showing 20-something women being attacted to responsible, successful men, because I don’t see it among attractive women.

  • CaptBackslap

    The Hymowitz article doesn’t really contain an argument; it basically boils down to a “Back in My Day” rant. She even admits that “pre-adulthood” (and think about the assumptions behind that lame neologism) is reserved for guys who have money to do it; in other words, it’s not a drain on society’s resources. If women don’t want to have “pre-adult” boyfriends, they should date guys who aren’t like that, who are still around. It’s really only a problem in Kay Hymowitz’s exquisitely uptight mind.

    • richard silliker

      amen. close enough for me.

  • Sister Y

    Why would ANY rational actor – male or female – invest heavily in getting a lifetime mutual sexuality output contract when the costs, the irremediable consequences of failure, and the odds of failure are all high, and the benefit is so mediocre and uninspiring?

    • Anonymous

      If it was only about sex, then I would agree with you. But a good marriage, though it may be challenging for many to achieve, offers far more benefits than just a “lifetime mutual sexuality output contract.”
      — Happily Married.

      • Aron

        lol a *good* marriage *offers* benefits. We all like to be offered things because we have the power to refuse. When someone *offers* us something we enter the negotiation with more power and we leave with more power. Your good marriage is nothing more than you dominating your partner, and being unsympathetic with their inferior position. Enjoy it, you smug motherfucker. WINNING!

      • richard silliker

        amen. There is some pain that pussy cannot take/make go away.

      • Explodicle

        Re: Aron –

        I don’t know if you’re serious, but that’s a good example of zero-sum bias – just because I have more “power” due to my marriage does not mean that my wife has less. Sometimes people will offer things that are mutually beneficial.

    • Oligopsony

      1) Because you’d like to spend your life with and raise kids with some person, and marriage offers the best way to make the situation minimally messy if things don’t go as planned.

      2) The downside risk isn’t very great if you don’t have kids. There’s plenty of downside risk to having kids with someone, but if you’re taking that on, far better to be married.

      3) Many people think it’s good self-indulgent fun to publicly celebrate their romantic relationship, and people generally like celebrating their friends’ relationships. This extends beyond the wedding ceremony to the whole extralegal side of marriage, and is probably why gay marriage is a political issue. Citizens symbolically participate in what the state does.

      4) Absent kids, adopting *some* risk contingent on the relationship not working is an effective way of signalling that you think the relationship will work, and that you and your partner can adequately trust each other enough to make medium-range sacrifices for its sake.

      Marriage is not in any meaningful sense a guarantee of sex (what could be more of a mood-killer in any event?) any more than individual marriages are primarily about sex. Marriage is about reducing intra-household transaction costs (alimony) and guaranteeing mother’s rights to force fathers to provide financial support to children and fathers’ rights to continue providing emotional support for their children.

  • JG

    @Sister Y:

    The biggest (good) reason I can think of is that, with respect to many of the services involved, uncertainty may very well make the freer life worse than a simple aggregate of one’s experiences would suggest. Of course, this will hold true more for some actors than for others.

    • Sister Y

      I didn’t understand what you’re saying.

  • JG

    The other big reason is that marriage contracts are partly (perhaps largely) a promise to third parties about how one will conduct one’s life, in particular that one is “out of the game”. We presumably prefer not to bear the full burden of making sure our acquaintances don’t try to take our current mates away.

    • Buck Farmer

      Also a request for institutional/social support in maintaining our commitments.

      Hence all the hullabaloo around same-sex marriage…either side could be happy with a pluralistic ‘i call it cohabitation, you call it marriage solution’ but both sides want strong institutional/social support.

    • Sister Y

      Is marriage good protection against adultery?

      • IVV

        Depends on who you roll with.

  • Captain Oblivious

    As for the income disparity, I always liked Scott Adam’s observation that while it’s true men earn more than women, women spend more than men. Which side of this equation sounds like the better deal?

  • Buck Farmer

    Robin, hear hear! This is a cross-gender phenomenon…

    …that said, instead of focusing on gender questions, why don’t we look at the implications of these indulgent years for an unprecedented proportion of our population.

    First, in pure short-term utility / welfare terms this seems like a win. Today’s recession is not nearly as soul-grinding because we can mostly afford the internet’s panoply of free entertainment.

    Second, in so far as this is a diversion of time from wasteful status signalling, then we are reducing the negative externalities to those who continue to compete for status. Simultaneously we may be reducing total output, but this is ambiguous due to the waste reduction. (I’m not counting videogames as waste since they are instinsically welfare increasing for players).

    Third, this whole “early adulthood”, “late adolescence” thing sounds awfully like the kind of productive surplus that society has produced in the wake of any meaningful expansion. Look at people turning to gin-drinking in the Industrial Revolution or television in the post-WWII boom.

    Honestly, I suspect that this is just the transition pain as we search for new and better ways of utilizing our bountiful free-time and spare cognitive capacity. Once status competition sneaks back into the minds of this cohort or their successors, I’m sure this leisure will give way to tremendously productive innovations and efforts.

    The rich man is no less subject to status’ iron law than the poor; her decrees treat him more roughly, for all his other masters have vanished in his affluence.

  • Bee

    This type of book is an excuse to male bash. The problem is that women are no better than men on any dimension.

    science and engineering are dominated by men. Innovation to create a better world is dominated by men. The medium man or woman offers little to society as a real contributor, thus stagnant wages. The question then which costs society more. Here the answer is clear, women. They have more debt,due to useless education, and consume more than men.

    Women want sugar dadies that they can disparage and feel superior to because they feel more than men do. Good luck girls.

  • This reminds me of a Hacker News thread, “Are teens born or made?”, which discusses a correlation / causation problem: do people aged 12 – 19 naturally have the kinds of characteristics American society assumes they will, or are those characteristics inculcated by cultural conditioning and schools? The linked article isn’t particularly good but the idea is intriguing.

    So maybe society has made it easier to be self-indulgent (at most levels of life) for long periods of time, which means people are willing to be self-indulgent.

    After all, college is mostly a wasteful signaling game.

    I’ve seen you mention this before, but is there somewhere you lay out why you think this is? That college has a lot of signaling, possibly wasteful, going on is unsurprising, but I’m still skeptical of the word “mostly.”

  • drunkdudeinhistwenties

    wifey earns the money in this house hold…

  • richard silliker

    Enjoy. 5:40 min. in length.

  • fburnaby

    “Where have all the good men gone?”

    If these behaviours make men less desirable to women, then shouldn’t we expect them not to do it? Through withholding sex, women get to define what a “good man” is. If today’s women have a “freer” disposition toward sex (and this is their prerogative), then what incentive do men have to produce in the economy? Why not enjoy oneself in between lays, all the while practicing the social skills that will get one laid again, instead of committing countless hours to production that will go essentially unrewarded?

    There’s no longer any need for women to trade sex (be used) in exchange for sustenance, and Hymowitz is sure that this is a bad thing for women?

    • nelsonal

      One might say that having had enough sex withheld, many men are turning to video games and porn as good enough substitutes. In other words unlike Charlie Brown lots of young men have figured out that the odds of having the football removed are too high to attempt to play the game.

      The current whining is women starting to realize that in their rush up the status ladder they’re quickly running out of datable men.

  • Also – “There’s no longer any need for [men] to trade [support] (be used) in exchange for [sex].”

    • fburnaby


  • And men still out-earn women on average at all ages, mostly because women tend to choose self-fulfilling majors and careers over high paying ones. So those higher fem GPAs are more a sign of self-indulgence than social contribution, at least if we measure contribution by income.

    I seem to detect the hidden assumption that high pay is somehow equivalent to social contribution, which has to be the stupidest thing I’ve seen today, unless you believe people like Lloyd Blankfein contributes many orders of magnitude more to society than, say, a scientist working on a malaria cure.

    And speaking of stinking, the odor of aggrieved males whining about imagined unfair female privilege has to be the most status-lowering thing imaginable. Really guys — is the awesome status accorded to female English majors some sort of threat to your own self-esteem?

  • fyreflye

    I can see a problem with almost everybody being self indulgent, but what’s the problem with specifically me being self indulgent? Value judgements of some about others are pretty self indulgent in themselves. The self indulgent gamers and serial monogamists may not be saving the world, but they aren’t fanatically scheming to roll back 50 years of social progress while waging endless wealth draining wars for no discernible reason.

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