Men will be boys


According to French historian Philippe Aries in his 1960 classic “Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life”, childhood was invented by Renaissance Europeans*. The mid-20th century Americans in turn invented teenagehood. Now, in the early new millennium, Western Gen Ys and Millennials have extended both life phases well into the adulthood.

I was reminded of this fact a few days ago, as the “Budgie Nine” controversy was drawing to a close. Specifically, it was the quote from John Walker, father of Jack Walker, one of the nine and now an ex-adviser to Christopher Pyne. Walker Sr. went to Malaysia to support his son and had this to say:

They’re good boys … it happened.

There’s no charge, there’s no fine and the boys apologised.

Of course, for a father, his son will always be his boy, just as daughters, even when adult, will always be their parents’ girl. But the use of the term “boy” does nevertheless point to an uncomfortable truth.

The Nine might have behaved like boys, but in no other sense they are still boys. Their ages range from 25 to 29 years. They are men; young men to be sure, with the oldest of the group soon to crack the fourth decade on this Earth, but definitely not boys, not adolescents, not teenagers, not even particularly “the youth” anymore.

One probably shouldn’t reach too far back in time for comparative purposes, lest comparisons become misleading. In the Middle Ages, 29 years was considered middle age. A millennium or two prior to that, 29 was pretty much the life expectancy. But we can stick closer to home. Recall that the beaches of Normandy and Okinawa were stormed by 18 and 19 year olds. A 25-year-old would be considered an old man in the ranks and would most likely be a captain or a major. In Vietnam too, as we were reminded musically by Paul Hardcastle’s “19” and Redgum’s Aussie classic “I was only 19”. Many did call them boys, noticing how young and fresh-faced they seemed in contemporary photographs. But they still fought and suffered and died all over Europe, North Africa, the Pacific, and the South-East Asia. Less existentially, many of them and their peers from the 1940s to the 1960s married and became fathers around 20. By 25 or 29 they would have been far too busy to strip down to their swimmers at a sporting event.

That’s not necessarily a good thing; I don’t want to idealise the past. It’s arguably a positive development that 19-year-olds today don’t marry, procreate and fight (too much). There are numerous benefits to the modern life, which just seems that much safer, nicer and more fun. But we seem to have swung to the other extreme – as one popular meme recently noted:


And “boys” in mid-to-late 20s engage in silly hijinks overseas; intelligent enough to get good education and good jobs (including a $150,000-a-year job as an adviser to a Federal Minister) but not intelligent enough to do a simple internet search to find out if their planned stunt might create some problems in a foreign country with a very different culture to Australia.

It’s time to grow up. I won’t bore you with a comprehensive literature review on the topic why the young people today are postponing their rendezvous with what their elders properly understand as adulthood with all its responsibilities. Yeah, I know, hardly anyone voluntarily chooses to live with their parents in their 20s and 30s, so yes, many Gen Ys are poor, which only begs another question and further literature review.

But that’s not an excuse. If I recall correctly, P J O’Rourke’s grandmother used to say “You’re never so poor you can’t clean for yourself.” However hard done by life you might feel it doesn’t prevent you from showing some maturity, responsibility and initiative. Even more so if you’re objectively not hard done by life, like the Budgie Nine. Just snap out of it; leave childish things to children and try to grow – ideally balls, because the beard is too easy and doesn’t mean anything anymore.

My former boss used to say that childhood lasts a lifetime. He meant it that our childhood experiences powerfully shape the adults we become. Sadly, too many now want to take it literally. The Western world will not solve its demographic decline by artificially inflating the numbers of children. Man up and face the reality.

* Aries’ thesis has now been widely refuted.