It’s not a trick question: There’s a piece in the New York Times about aging single men in their 30s and 40s who are finally ready to settle down, but bummed that it takes actual effort and stuff. What shall we do here? A round of sympathy drinks? Or a heartless, sarcastic boo-hoo?
First, let’s get to know the men in the piece:
Jean-Marc Choffel, 42-year-old French hairstylist
At 9 p.m. on any night of the week, Choffel can be found sitting in his leather swivel chair pondering his next move: Call up his friends who all have kids are in for the night? Or venture out alone, “grab a girl,” have sex—only to wake up with a ragingly unproductive headache in the morning?
“When you’re 27, there’s no tomorrow,” Choffel tells author Sridhar Pappu. “At 42, today’s tomorrow. Going home to kids and a family, you’re creating something. You’re building something.”
Ryan Wallace, 35-year-old in corporate communications
“People think that if you are gay and you are single, particularly in the city, that there is this sort of unbridled freedom,” Wallace said. Sure—gyms, work, and happy hour are all great in your twenties. But when you get older? “Your priorities change.”
Jonathan Lee, 40-year-old internal bank auditor
Lee admitted part of the reason he’s “underdeveloped” when it comes to relationships and dating is that he’s still at work at 8 p.m. while doing this very interview. He’s filled with regret.
“Thinking about the math, the longer I wait to start my own family, you start to think, ‘When I consider someone to marry, I have to find someone young enough to have children,” he says. “And the age difference. What’s acceptable? What’s O.K.? What doesn’t work?’ There are a lot more challenges the older you get, and I realize that now.”
Scott Slattery, 35-year-old communications and marketing consultant
Slattery wants to be a dad but realizes old age is encroaching. “I still want to take care of [my kids] through their entire lives, so I don’t want to be old.”
There are more: Paul Gollash, the 40-year-old who realized in his late thirties that he was “fed up with being single” and so he suddenly had to hit up all the sorts of places he’d never have gone before to do the dreaded mingling, like cocktail parties and work events. Or Alan Yang, the co-creator of the Aziz Ansari Netflix show Master of None who admitted that it wasn’t until his sister had a baby that it struck him that he might want a family of his own. Or there’s 44-year-old Paul Morris, who doesn’t want kids, but doesn’t want to be single forever, either. He was out at a bar at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night—trying to be “out there,” and wondering if this was what 44 really looks like.
So, truth be told, it’s easy to mock these guys—careerists out working hard, having fun, seemingly oblivious to the notion that time ticks along for everyone. It’s, yes, amusing to see men grappling mid-life with an insight that was tucked into an invisible pamphlet issued at birth to every woman I know. It read: Better lock something down before it’s too late and your looks are all dried up. Women have spent decades fighting this cultural notion of a female expiration date, only to find out that men have one too?
While that’s satisfying on some level, there’s this paragraph that irks: Pappu writes that Choffel “is not alone in his increasing distaste for a life that many married men would say they envy. With the freedom has come certain costs: isolation, regret and the feeling that, although you may still feel 25 in your heart, your knees are starting to ache and the years are slipping by fast.”
While it shouldn’t be a shock that ultimately anyone can feel regret about not finding a life partner—even men!—it’s still a remarkable snapshot of the glaring differences between how young life is framed for women versus men. For women, it’s a race against the biological clock. For men, it’s a party clock. Are married women ever portrayed as envying their single girlfriends’ lives, as missing out on all that social freedom?
“While they are not dealing with a reproductive deadline, they had the feeling that the party was nearing its end,” Pappu says of his subjects.
Women are culturally prodded toward relationships from day one—whether by guarding their virginity for true love or simply learning how to be a better, more understanding girlfriend. For ages, the success or failure of a relationship was laid entirely at a woman’s door. Men, meanwhile, are counseled on how to succeed at everything but relationships. There’s probably more guidance on fantasy football strategies in the world than on being a good boyfriend.
But as we move into our young adult lives in our twenties, it’s only recently that women are being more encouraged to focus on school and career and delay marriage, to date and have fun rather than smile nice at the guy next to you at college orientation just in case he might just be your future husband. It’s astonishing to be reminded that for men, it’s possible to have a decades-long break of skipping out on this concern.
On one hand, I’m jealous, but there’s also a mild bit of schadenfreude about listening to successful urban men complain about how hard it is to get out there and make a basic attempt at meeting people.
Readers tended to agree. Comments (over 700) included men thanking Pappu for the piece, which they said perfectly captured the yearning that may not hit a man until he’s 55 (!). Other appraisals were far less generous, like this one, from Maryjane in New York:
As one of the thousands of single women in this city, I find this article to be a little ridiculous. I can’t speak for the gay men, but for the straight guys... if you really want to find a nice girl and settle down, all you have to do is make the slightest bit of effort. As soon as you decide to take that plunge, you will have no problem moving forward. So, I don’t really have any sympathy.
And to the reporter who thinks that “all the really good girls that you would want to marry are taken”—well, what a joke.
The Times followed up with a piece examining those reader responses, highlighting, mostly, how relieved some women readers were to see men getting a taste of the medicine they’d been force-fed since conception.
“The guys are getting the same treatment from the Media that women have been getting for generations: ‘hurry up and get married before you’re too old and nobody wants you,” one wrote.
Another woman who’d lived in New York during her twenties and thirties said it was comeuppance: “I know very well that they are of the same age group that would drop someone like a hot rock for any excuse back in the day (one guy who had spoken of marriage changed his mind because he didn’t like the eyeliner that I wore one night), just because there were so many options out there.”
Another woman reader put it bluntly, advising these men to “stop blaming fate or outside circumstances and hightail it to the nearest competent psychotherapist.”
But while it’s easy (and fun!) to mock men who just figured at 44 that relationships might be nice and sure take effort, we should instead, I think, see this as proof that men and women are moving closer together than ever. Is this not another quiet corner of equality? Women now wait longer and longer to have kids and marry, too. Anyone who does so may have greater difficulty finding a suitable mate, male or female. But maybe, in the end, that means the similarly aged men and women who wait to settle down may just have to settle for each other.
Image via HBO/screengrab.