Everyone is checking out
The much discussed wave of men opting out of traditional life paths is just the tip of the iceberg and an increasing number of women are below the surface.
I keep bumping into the factoid that many men have checked out, that the young man of today (“soylennial” or younger) is not engaging with traditional life paths anymore and is lost, either because he has no incentives to be found or because he is qualitatively different (compromised by endocrine poisons or carrying a heavy mutational load on average) - or both. It seems like this phenomenon has many local flavors: The Hikikomori in Japan, China’s Herbivore men, the phenomenon of Waithood in India and the Middle East, quiet quitting, and the growth of NEETs everywhere in the Western world and beyond.
“Checking out” has been interpreted as the result of many disparate phenomena, often gendered, often entirely the fault of one or the other sex (if they’d just stop X behavior collectively, this would solve itself.) Everything from hookup culture, gaming, social media, online dating, ubiquitous porn, women voting and/or being educated, the pill, legalized abortion, testosterone/sperm count collapse, and xenoestrogens have been blamed for our careening away from each other, and the world.* And in small part, every one of these theories is right, all these puzzle pieces contribute to building a world we’re not made to inhabit.
I do believe internet-based, iterative and split-test tech that hijacks our seeking and reward pathways has an outsized effect in amplifying and accelerating these trends, but it’s not the whole story. This has been on rails for a while.
The analyses of “checking out” often focus on men because they’ve been ahead of the curve and do so in a more visible and statistically salient way. Men are also traditionally expected to play a more competitive, socially dominant role, so their increasing absence is more startling. I don’t think men are alone here, though.
I’m starting to notice something very similar happening with women. I believe it’s a more covert phenomenon and would not show up as flagrantly in statistics because it’s not a complete divorce from the world. You’d see this in marriage and birth statistics, sure, but it wouldn’t register as a total retreat. Most of the women in this cohort still cling to their jobs and continue a vague semblance of social life, but they have given up all the same. A startling number of women my age are a sort of she-kikommori. Giving up simply looks a bit different for a group that is higher in agreeableness and neuroticism and tends to be more conformist and loss averse.
Quiet quitting a remote job and going through the motions, stopping dating and giving up the long and arduous struggle to create friendships like you used to have in high school, getting a pet and/or lots of plants, and becoming obsessively involved with their care, alongside various sporadic fixations via social media - without retreating entirely from the world - seems to be a more typical trajectory with women. In terms of relationships, they seem to just not be interested in what is out there. They’d like a relationship, but the pickings are slim and the alternatives don’t seem that bad. There is plenty to fill your day, even if it’s not extremely fulfilling.
Contrasting their lives with the few friends who got married and have kids is a confusing exercise, because the contrast is usually between, at best, a life of love and meaning that looks exhausting and an entertaining and leisurely life of purposelessness. At worst, their friends have troubled marriages and it looks like nothing to envy. A few failed relationships are usually enough to take the wind out of their sails. Life feels long and there are plenty of palliatives to smooth out the ride.
And though the aging cat lady is a common target of mockery, she may simply be someone who’s weighed her options with the information available and she may have accepted what’s coming. Today’s spinster has a different palette of options. This is not a village in the 1600s, and though women are more conformist, mainstream culture, in thrall to the metaphor of the unchained individual, has normalized single life and childlessness as a legitimate option. Cognitive dissonance about making this choice, despite some potential pangs from the biological clock, is lower than it has ever been. The idea that generations of women will one day wake up in a cold sweat and be driven mad because they don’t have children or families, instead of just spending another day plodding along in the same hyperstimulated and distraction-fuelled anxiety that marked the rest of their lives is getting harder to believe.
The looming threat of dying alone is dampened by the fact that you’re never really alone, there is always something there to distract you and take away any gnawing existential dread. Entertainment is ubiquitous and immersive and facilitates the growth of cult-like sources of “cope” for both genders. The dog mom/ plant mom phenomenon is simply Warhammer for women. These are also people who know that, at best, their final years will be in a nursing home, or, at worst, something like MAID could provide a utilitarian form of relief one day. Despite millions on the internet rooting for her psychological collapse, the SSRI wine aunt may just quietly expire while scrolling TikTok.
The reality is that both men and women are living in post-scarcity with brains and social technologies adapted for scarcity. We’re (kind of) trying to continue this thing called humanity while it is continuously atrophying, and we’re getting worse at it in the process. “Men have to work twice as hard as their grandfathers to get a woman half as good as their grandmother” may well be true, but they don’t make men like their grandfathers anymore either. Bare life is cheap, it requires little competence and the return on investment of your time for an ambiguous and ever-changing assortment of status markers is fuzzy.
The optimism of the 1960s about a boundless world, the slow opening of something filled with charm and magic gave way to massive fractures in the way we see ourselves and the cacophony of mass media and its many incarnations since. Cults were a big part of the coping with change effort in the 60s as well, and their digital descendants are legion, filling our lives with parasocial relationships and shadows of far-away lifestyles.
Covid taught more and more people the emptiness of the rat race, the problem is that the gap wasn’t filled with anything more substantive. For many, men and women, the conclusion was the emptiness of everything.
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